Washington, D.C.– While less visible than roads and bridges, water and wastewater systems are an equally important part of America’s infrastructure—and just as in need of major repairs—according to a new paper released today by a Bipartisan Policy Center task force. Healthcare and tax reform may dominate the legislative agenda in Washington at the start of this year’s Infrastructure Week, but the fallout from the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, continues as thousands of residents received shutoff warnings this month for outstanding water bills.
Though tackling infrastructure remains popular among lawmakers, many advocates fear that a national infrastructure proposal may neglect to address the critical needs of water and wastewater systems. In an op-ed on Medium accompanying the paper, former Dallas mayor Steve Bartlett, former Grand Rapids, Michigan, mayor George Heartwell, and former Housing and Urban Development secretary and San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros call for focused attention and action on the issue.
Our nation’s water and wastewater systems are in a crisis born from their own success.
“Our nation’s water and wastewater systems are in a crisis born from their own success. The majority of Americans can turn on the taps in their homes and receive clean water to drink, bathe in, or water their lawns,” writes the BPC task force in the paper. “Those same Americans with safe, functioning systems often think nothing of the complicated network of pipes and advanced treatment technologies that carry sewage from their homes and clean the effluent. Across the country, these systems are aging and in need of significant repairs after years of deferred maintenance.”
Water systems face many threats: dozens of regulated drinking water contaminants, system failures in the treatment of wastewater, and contaminated stormwater overflows all present unique environmental and health risks. An estimated 240,000 water mains break every year, which contributes to utilities collectively losing 1.7 trillion gallons, or $2.6 billion worth of treated drinking water. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that aging pipes and inadequate capacity result in the discharge of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. waterways each year. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 1.8 and 3.5 million people per year become ill from recreational contact, such as swimming, with water contaminated by sanitary sewer overflows.
To address some of these issues and raise awareness among policymakers, BPC assembled a water infrastructure task force whose members include Cisneros, Bartlett, and Heartwell, as well as senior staff from Xylem and American Water. This task force’s work is in collaboration with the BPC’s broader Executive Council on Infrastructure.