Investing in America’s Water Infrastructure

Significant investment can make a real dent in meeting the environmental and structural challenges facing our drinking water and wastewater systems.

Like other parts of the American infrastructure, our nation’s wastewater and drinking water systems are in desperate need of revitalization. Consider this: In their 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our nation’s 14,748 wastewater treatment plants a D+. What’s worse is that they estimated that by 2032, the demand on the plants will increase by 23 percent, with more than 56 million new users expected. The ASCE estimated that the price tag needed to meet these current and future demands is a whopping $271 billion.

Believe it or not, our drinking water systems got an even worse grade, earning a flat-out D from the ASCE. Drinking water is delivered via one million miles of pipes across the country. Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid 20th century, with some even dating back to the late 19th century. Pipes have a lifespan of 75-100 years. The system is in desperate need of revitalization as there are 240,000 water main breaks every year in the United States, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water — that’s six billion gallons lost every day. According to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), an estimated $1 trillion is necessary to maintain and expand service to meet these demands over the next 25 years.

Will investment at these levels successfully bring our water and wastewater systems up to par? And, if so, how are we going to be able to afford it?

During my time as Governor of Pennsylvania, we were faced with a similar crisis, but fortunately we were able to combine two state bond issues with a significant federal investment from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania made $280 million in loan funding available to localities for water, sewer, and wastewater projects. As of July 1, 2009 we had approved funding for 899 drinking water projects and 1,334 sewer and wastewater projects. Although this sounds like a great number of projects, our needs were far greater. Fortunately, we were able to use federal stimulus funds from the ARRA: $65 million for drinking water and $155 million for wastewater systems. We used funds from two bond issues that I described as Commonwealth Stimulus Funds to add $644 million to the task — $283 million for drinking water and $381 for wastewater. So together, federal and state stimulus funds added $884 million to the task, enabling us to make a significant dent in our increasing demand.

It is clear that significant investment can make a real dent in meeting the environmental and structural challenges facing our drinking water and wastewater systems. Investment truly works. But there is one issue remaining. How are we going to be able to generate the $1 trillion needed in the next 25 years for drinking water systems, and $271 billion in the next 15 years needed for wastewater? Given the fact that President Trump has only proposed $200 billion of federal investment for the entire US infrastructure, it doesn’t look like there’s a plan to make our drinking and wastewater systems “great again.”

However, I have an idea, and so did President Bill Clinton. He embattled a task force to look at the viability of establishing a federal capital budget. I appeared as a witness strongly advocating such a move. The commission was an impressive group chaired by then-Chairman of Goldman Sachs Jon Corzine and then-Treasurer of California, Kathleen Brown. It appeared that the advocates for such a move were winning the day until Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the commission’s last witness, testified against it. As a result, the commission made a report but did not make a recommendation.

Financial experts and legal scholars argue about exactly what procedure would need to be followed to create a federal capital budget, but whatever it takes, we have to do it. The federal government is the only political subdivision in America without one. Every city, county, and state has a capital budget. Only a capital budget could make long-term investments at the level I’ve discussed and it may well be the solution to this challenge. But one thing is abundantly clear — without a capital budget, America’s drinking water and wastewater systems will continue to decay, as will every part of American infrastructure.

Edward G. Rendell, Pennsylvania’s 45th Governor, began a second term of office on January 16, 2007, following a landslide re-election victory. As Governor, Rendell served as chief executive of the nation’s 6th-mostpopulous state and oversaw a $27.5 billion budget. He currently serves as co-chair for Building America’s Future Educational Fund (BAF Ed Fund), a bipartisan coalition of elected officials dedicated to bringing about a new era of U.S. investment in infrastructure that enhances our nation’s prosperity and quality of life.