Cities Invest in Resilient Water Infrastructure

Over the last 10 years, Cleveland has invested nearly $1 billion in their water infrastructure to prepare for the future, and citizens have approved new fees to fund these improvements

By Will Downie and Carolyn Berndt

America’s water infrastructure is facing unprecedented challenges. Rising temperatures and reduced precipitation have led to more frequent and severe droughts. Forty out of 50 state water managers report that they are facing a water shortage, or expect to in the next 10 years. On the flip side, increasingly severe storms and flooding have caused billions of dollars in damage across the country. These challenges would be difficult for even the most up-to-date infrastructure systems, but in much of the United States, our water infrastructure is in dire condition. This is compounded by cuts in federal funding, which accounted for 63 percent of investments in infrastructure in the 1970s, and today accounts for only nine percent.

In spite of this, local leaders have stepped up to secure their cities for the future and develop resilient water infrastructure. Local government investments account for 95-98 percent of all water and sewer infrastructure spending, including more than $115 billion in 2014, according the U.S. Census Bureau. Inspired by these efforts, the National League of Cities recently held a Congressional briefing on how cities are building more resilient water infrastructure. Leaders from across the country spoke about the challenges their cities are overcoming, and how others can invest in resiliency. These stories serve as examples for other leaders, and highlight the creativity and dedication of city leaders.

The Mississippi River Valley

For Mayor Darryl Grennell of Natchez, Mississippi a clean and healthy Mississippi River is important to the health of its citizens and its economy. A clean river means more tourists, which means more spending and more economic opportunities. To help keep the river clean, Natchez has begun collecting and storing sewage sludge, and offers it free of charge to local farmers as fertilizer. This prevents waste from polluting the Mississippi River, and helps local farmers prosper.

Cities on the Mississippi River have strengthened their ties by forming the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI). This Initiative serves as a vehicle for cooperation and coordination for the cities on the Mississippi to work out solutions to shared challenges. In March, MRCTI unveiled a plan to restore the natural and built infrastructure of the region to prepare for future storms, including a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program and a Resilience Revolving Loan Fund to fund resiliency projects.

West Palm Beach, Florida

In 2007, a 100-year drought left West Palm Beach within two weeks of running out of water. The drought galvanized the city and Mayor Jeri Muoio to ensure a stable water supply for the future. City leaders realized that water was being lost to leakage and evaporation. In response, the city sank nine new underground wells to recapture water, and began storing water underground to ensure a reliable supply in case of drought. The intake valve for fresh water from a nearby lake was also lowered, so water could be accessed during droughts. With these improvements, West Palm Beach has planned their water supply through 2065, and droughts will no longer threaten the city’s water supply.

West Palm Beach is also part of the Southeast Florida Regional Compact, a group of Florida cities and counties that have pledged to cooperate to address the effects of climate change. The Compact has developed a Regional Climate Action Plan, which includes goals of advancing water management strategies, funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, and better data collection and information sharing.

Easton, Pennsylvania

In 2004, 2005, and 2006 Easton’s Central Business District was devastated by flooding. However, much of the flooding was coming from upstream in New York state. To address this issue, Mayor Sal Panto and other Delaware River mayors worked with New York on improving water management to prevent flooding down river. Easton has also been on the forefront of developing environmentally sound policies. The City’s new comprehensive plan introduces new incorporated green infrastructure initiatives, such as incentives for pervious surfaces and a Total Maximum Daily Load Plan for stormwater management, to better prepare the city for storms. Regarding his city’s initiatives, Mayor Panto said that we need to take these actions now, the longer we wait the heavier the burden becomes.

Cleveland, Ohio

Over the last 10 years, Cleveland has invested nearly $1 billion in their water infrastructure to prepare for the future, and citizens have approved new fees to fund these improvements. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which includes Cleveland, has also been working to improve water infrastructure. The Sewer district has committed to reducing the amount of sewage discharged into Lake Erie to 500 million gallons, from the current 4.5 billion gallons. The Sewer district has implemented new impervious surface fees to reduce flooding and made individual buildings responsible for their own stormwater management. Grants, regulation and land protection are also being used to proactively improve water management and resiliency.

These examples highlight some of the ways that local leaders can help secure a resilient future for their cities. Through innovative solutions, collaboration and proactive initiatives, these leaders have built stronger, more resilient water infrastructure for their cities that address environmental challenges, protect public health, safety and welfare, and strengthen the economy.

Carolyn Berndt is Program Director for Sustainability at National League of Cities. Will Downie is a National League of Cities Federal Advocacy Intern. They may be reached at nlc.org.

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