This month, a critical link in the city’s most essential public infrastructure hit a breaking point: A 120-year old water main burst, shutting down Light and Lombard streets, disrupting commutes and downtown businesses. Only 10 days later, a sink hole collapsed a portion of East Monument Street near Johns Hopkins Hospital when an underground storm-drain culvert failed. These two failures highlight the need to reinvest in our nation’s water systems and to ensure vital support to a public service we cannot do without. We know investing in water infrastructure is critical not only for the public health but also for job creation and economic growth.
The nation’s vast infrastructure of pipes is largely overdue for replacement. In Baltimore, the water infrastructure is just as “historic” as our buildings, and the same is true of communities across the country. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Water Council, public water systems will require an average of more than $100 billion per year in funding over the next 20 years. The task of meeting future water needs largely falls to local communities. In Baltimore and across the nation, local governments are charged with replacing aging infrastructure and meeting the demands of a growing population. At the same time, they are coping with the aftermath of the economic recession. Cities and towns should not have to address these overwhelming needs alone.
Our failing water infrastructure is not only a regional issue, and it is certainly not a partisan issue — it is something that affects the health and well-being of every American. Our wastewater treatment systems prevent billions of tons of pollutants each year from reaching America’s rivers, lakes, and coastlines. In so doing, they help prevent water-borne disease and make our waters safe for fishing and swimming. Similarly, we rely on our nation’s drinking water systems to keep disease-causing contaminants out of the water that we drink and cook with every day. The ongoing degradation of these systems puts human health directly at risk.
In addition to the human health toll, inadequate water infrastructure investment costs our communities money. The cost of preventing infrastructure failures like the ones on Lombard and East Monument Streets is far less than the expense of dealing with structural damage, flooding, and business disruption after a break occurs. And even beyond catastrophic failures, small leaks and breaks take a major toll. Each day, the United States wastes billions of gallons of drinking water due to leaks, according to a recent environmental report published by Green For All; this is water that has already been subjected to expensive treatment. These costs will only increase unless we act now to reinvest in this
The dismal state of our water infrastructure represents an important opportunity for job creation and economic growth. In today’s tough economy, water infrastructure investment can be vital in putting Americans back to work, creating thousands of new, and desperately needed jobs. For example, the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that every $1 invested in public water systems generates $6.35 in GDP in the long-term. TheU.S. Department of Commerceestimates that each job created in the local water and sewer industry creates 3.68 jobs in the broader national economy and that each public dollar spent yields $2.62 in economic output in other industries.
Infrastructure investment creates jobs and stimulates the economy more effectively than any tax cut, according to Mark Zandi, Chief Economist ofMoody’sAnalytics. While investment in all kinds of public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, transit and school buildings, is a smart and effective way to stimulate the economy, critical water infrastructure must not be overlooked simply because it is underground and out of sight.
Baltimore is making the tough choices to invest in its water system. This year, the city approved another increase in the water rate to pay for millions of dollars of work to be done over the next several years. For the 25 percent of city residents who live below the poverty line, these increases are especially difficult to bear for such an essential service.
Baltimore, and jurisdictions across the country, should not have to go it alone. The federal government must be a reliable partner in meeting these essential investment needs. At the federal level, it is critically important that we fully fund the state revolving funds for clean water and safe drinking water, thereby ensuring that EPA has sufficient dedicated funding to support water quality standards. Beyond that, we must begin to embrace the kinds of innovative funding ideas — including lifting the cap on private activity bonds for infrastructure investment and creating a trust fund mechanism for water projects — that will promote strong water infrastructure investment into the future.
In recent weeks, Baltimore has experienced two major failures of our aging water system; next week, the same could be true of any city in America. The time to protect public health and safety is now. The time to improve our economy and create quality jobs is now. The time to invest in our water infrastructure is now.
Ben Cardin, a Democrat, is Maryland’s junior U.S. senator. He can be reached at cardin.senate.gov, Twitter: @SenatorCardin. Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Democrat, is Baltimore’s mayor. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @MayorSRB.