Will Congress be willing to fund billions more for water infrastructure?
By Mary Scott Nabers
There are thousands of critical issues facing Congress, but few are more significant than the funding of water infrastructure in America.
Because elected officials have had a total focus on COVID-19 these last few months, capturing the attention of government leaders has been almost impossible. But, that must happen because the availability of clean and adequate water resources impacts every citizen, industry, and region of the country.
Even before the world was aware of COVID-19, water issues and needs were critical and there was a $1 trillion investment gap in water infrastructure. Now, action is truly needed.
The data is staggering – water is being delivered through more than 1 million miles of pipes, many of which are a decade beyond their life expectancy. The country experiences more than 240,000 water main breaks annually, wastes more than 2 trillion gallons of precious drinking water and is forced to deal with as many as 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows.
COVID-19 has caused water needs to spiral. A recent report that draws data from the American Water Works Association and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies projects that COVID-19 alone will financially impact drinking water utilities by another $14 billion annually. It’s hard to imagine how it could be possible not to focus on America’s water infrastructure.
The problem, of course, is that Congress is grappling with a federal debt of approximately $25.6 trillion. That’s a high concern. Will Congress be willing to fund billions more for water infrastructure? Until that question is answered, many large water projects are on hold and public officials, industry leaders, and citizens have reason to worry.
But, there is good news. Many visionary leaders have decided not to wait on Congress. They are stepping up to announce large and much-needed water projects – many that will be financed by alternative funding sources and consolidated revenue streams. Because of that, water projects of all sizes and types are being launched throughout the U.S.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which owns the 7-mile-long Anderson Reservoir, has announced plans to begin emptying it in the next few months. A board-approved 42-page draining plan outlines a $220 million construction project- a 1,700-foot-long tunnel. Draining the water is necessary because of seismic issues that were identified more than a decade ago. The risk of an earthquake damaging the 240-foot tall structure is one that officials are unwilling to take. State and federal dam safety regulators agree that Anderson Dam would not withstand a major earthquake along the Calaveras Fault. Once the water is removed and stored and the tunnel is finished, the district will begin construction on a new dam. The entire project is estimated to cost $576 million.
The Sites Project Authority has issued new plans for the Sites Reservoir which will reduce the price tag from $5 billion to $3 billion. So far, 21 agencies have put up $27 million for planning and studies. Another $19 million is due by October 1. The authority is also are seeking at least $1 billion in federal loans, and $1.2 billion from water agencies wanting to purchase the water. The new plan will use existing canals to produce an annual yield of water at 243,000 acre-feet. Construction will now be delayed because of the plan changes but the project will move forward.
The Washington County Water Conservancy District and the Utah Division of Water Resources have completed a 12-year and $35 million project to design and plan for a proposed 140-mile Lake Powell pipeline to move up to 86,000 acre-feet of water a year. Costs for the project are estimated at $2.2 billion. An environmental analysis was recently released outlining two options for the pipeline that would divert water from the Colorado River to the St. George area. A public comment period will be held through September 6 related to the environmental impact statement. The project will include the intake apparatus at Glen Canyon Dam, four booster pumping stations, six inline hydropower stations, 71 miles of transmission lines, a 1-million-gallon storage tank, and “turnouts” near Johnson Canyon in Kane County to offload water when appropriate.
The Harris County Flood Control District in Texas recently announced plans to merge projects and cost estimates on an approved 2018 bond program that allocated $2.5 billion in funding. Twenty watershed storm repair projects were merged into one project, as were 17 projects to buy and clear flood prone properties and 16 projects involving subdivision drainage. The objective is to make the project management process more efficient. Work on the merged projects will begin on 19 projects by November 2020, and 18 others will be pushed to 2021 and 2022. Four new projects also were announced.
The Pittsburg Wastewater Treatment Plant, in use since 1952, is in dire need of upgrades at a cost estimated between $35 million and $40 million. The plant will be expanded, and funding will come from various grants and by sewer payments from residents.
These projects are but a few that have been announced recently. There are all types and all sizes of water infrastructure projects on drawing boards throughout the country.
Surely Congress will allocate large amounts of funding for water infrastructure – billions, most likely, but it is good to know that alternate sources of funding for water projects are available now.
Mary Scott Nabers is president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc., a business development company specializing in government contracting and procurement consulting throughout the U.S.