Too Many U.S. Water Systems Are Falling Apart: Here's the Solution

News & Politics

We’ve come a long way since 1977. We can access full libraries of information at the click of a button, ride in cars that don’t require drivers, and use pocket-sized devices to send electronic mail, listen to music and have groceries delivered right to our front doors. And yet many of our nation’s water systems—utilities that deliver services we take for granted—are falling apart.

The federal government was once a reliable steward of our drinking water and wastewater systems. In 1977 alone it invested almost $17 billion in today’s dollars. But since then, this support has dried up. In fact, federal funding for our local water utilities has declined a whopping 82 percent per capita since its funding peak in 1977. That year, the federal government spent $76.27 per person on drinking water and wastewater services; by 2014 that support had plummeted to a mere $13.68 per person.

Without these critical dollars, many communities lack the means to modernize and maintain these essential systems. In communities like Detroit and Baltimore, rates have risen to compensate for this funding gap, and many households cannot afford to pay their water service bills. In Flint, Michigan, inadequate funding and outdated infrastructure led to cost-cutting measures that ignited a public health crisis.

These developments have spurred a national conversation about fixing our water infrastructure, but most of the proposed solutions fall short of helping communities modernize their water systems and provide safe, clean, affordable water service for current and future generations.

Nothing short of a renewed federal investment in our nation’s water systems is going to help us meet this challenge.

The solution is the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act, or WATER Act, recently introduced in Congress by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). This sweeping new legislation will establish a dedicated, sustainable source of funding to update essential drinking water and sewer systems and replace aging and lead-ridden pipes.

The WATER Act is unique in that it provides a long-term, comprehensive solution to bridge the current funding gap. It generates money for community water systems by taxing offshore corporate profits in the year they are generated.

Unlike other proposed financing solutions, the WATER act preserves our water as a public service and does not give government handouts to large, for-profit water corporations. It makes sure that publicly controlled systems and small rural systems no longer have to compete with predatory water corporations for federal water resources.

For too long, for-profit water providers have attempted to capitalize on community budget shortfalls and aging water systems by offering municipalities expensive water system leasing deals that ultimately lead to rate increases and subpar service. But by renewing federal investment in local water systems, communities will no longer have to rely on water profiteers to fund system upgrades. The WATER Act will instead allocate money through the already existing State Revolving Funds—think of them as piggy banks for community water projects.

This new legislation will also reverse the swelling wave of water service shutoffs that have plagued low-income communities such as Detroit and Baltimore in recent years. An influx of federal dollars will help fund water system improvements, allowing municipalities to keep water service rates affordable to all households.

Nationally, millions of households have lead service lines, and the burden of replacing them often falls on homeowners and can cost over $2,000 per home. Those who cannot afford to pay for this risk lead poisoning. The WATER Act will help prevent another tragedy like the one in Flint by providing grants to homeowners to replace lead pipes.

While we welcome this long overdue national dialog on the woeful state of our water systems, we can’t let current interest in upgrading our infrastructure be hijacked by profit-minded corporations, or let it be sabotaged by foes of good government it on Capitol Hill. We must restore our nation’s confidence in its water, and that starts with reversing this decades-long decline in federal water funding by passing the WATER Act.

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