Infrastructure is a technical-sounding word that describes so much that matters in our daily lives. It may sound like something that happens somewhere else, but infrastructure includes our homes and the pipes that bring water to our faucets; the roads, trains, buses and bike or pedestrian paths that take us where we need to go; the electricity that fuels our daily lives and our gadget addictions; the transit system that allows goods to move from one place to another and transactions to move at the speed of a click or swipe. Infrastructure matters to our public health and safety, to our families and our communities, to our economy and much more.
For something that is so integral to our daily lives, Americans tend to take their infrastructure for granted. The condition of our transit systems, dams, roads, and wastewater and drinking water infrastructure is nothing short of alarming. We cannot keep pushing off repairs until emergencies hit, whether water main breaks or bridge collapses or train derailments. We underfund and neglect our infrastructure at our own peril. For years, I have been especially concerned about the deteriorating state of our water infrastructure. Long before Flint, Mich., was seared into the national consciousness, we have been fighting to upgrade our hidden water infrastructure, strengthen drinking water protections and get lead and other contaminants out of our communities.
Nationwide, we now regularly hear of communities facing similarly severe contaminations of their drinking water. In fact, lead has been found in tap water samples from nearly 2,000 water systems across the country.
In Washington, DC, in the early part of the last decade, lead leached into the water of possibly 42,000 children. Nearly a decade ago, every public school in Baltimore shut off their drinking fountains because of lead contamination. They have passed out bottled water ever since.
Though lead contamination in America’s cities is not an uncommon problem, it is a particularly expensive problem. Unfortunately, the amount we as a nation spend on our water infrastructure is woefully inadequate.
Baltimore City currently spends about $450,000 a year to supply bottled water to all but a few of Baltimore’s 180 schools — and it’s estimated that replacing all of the water pipes in a school would be millions of dollars per school.
According to the EPA’s most recent estimates, more than $655 billion is needed to repair and replace drinking water and wastewater infrastructure nationwide over the next 20 years. This comes to $32.75 billion per year, every year, for the next 20 years. Yet we only spend approximately $2 billion per year combined on the drinking water and waste water infrastructure state revolving funds.
It’s more important than ever that we come to an agreement as a nation that there needs to be a substantial increase in the amount of money appropriated for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, both of which form the bedrock of our nation’s water infrastructure funding in all 50 states. The stakes could not be higher. The health effects are so severe, our nation’s health experts have declared that there is no safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Zero.
In the Senate, we finally are reporting some progress. The Environment and Public Works Committee recently passed the bipartisan Water Resources Development Act, which contains a number of measures that will make improvements to our nation’s water infrastructure, address dangerous contaminants in our water supply, and strengthen the capabilities of municipalities and the federal government to reply to lead contamination crises.
At the end of the day, just as Americans expect roads and bridges to function safely, we have a right to expect that water coming from our taps is safe to drink and that Congress will do everything within its power to ensure that happens. Every community in America, whether urban, rural, or suburban, needs clean, safe water every day for every resident. Water infrastructure matters and we need to make long-term investments or risk our lives and the lives of our children.
Sen. Cardin is a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Honorary Co-Chair of National Infrastructure Week.