The nation’s water and wastewater utilities are victims of their own success: Americans have rightfully become accustomed to receiving clean water when they turn on their taps and having waste disappear down their pipes. Yet public understanding of the complicated and expensive systems needed to deliver those services is minimal. For instance, the United States has 1.2 million miles of water-supply mains—26 miles of water mains for every mile of interstate highway. That is just the drinking water system. There are nearly an equal number of sewer pipes.
Now, as systems across the country require critical repairs and upgrades, water and wastewater customers are often surprised by and reflexively opposed to new charges and fees, and thus unwilling or unable to accept a higher price for services they may have taken for granted. These expectations have left utilities with the challenge of raising mission-critical funding from a skeptical public while maintaining affordability for those who already struggle to pay their bills.
To address some of these issues and raise awareness among policymakers, the Bipartisan Policy Center has created a water infrastructure task force whose members include former mayors George Heartwell (Grand Rapids, MI), Steve Bartlett (Dallas, TX) and Henry Cisneros (San Antonio, TX) as well as senior staff from Xylem and American Water.
The task force, in a series of upcoming papers, will:
- Identify the challenges facing water and wastewater utilities around the country;
- Explore the true cost of providing vital services;
- Examine the role of the private sector in helping to address water and wastewater infrastructure needs; and
- Highlight innovations that may bring down the cost of supplying drinking water, treating wastewater, and limiting polluted runoff to preserve the nation’s aquatic environments and public health.
This first paper briefly reviews several types of water infrastructure along with some unique challenges and opportunities in addressing their affordability, funding, and financing.