A Buried Problem, Bursting to be Solved

Cynthia Liebman

Out of sight, out of mind—until of course, 2 million people are left wondering why they don’t have clean drinking water.

This weekend’s Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) water main break, which spilled millions of gallons of drinking water into the Charles River, should alert us to a larger and often hidden crisis of under-funded water infrastructure across the country. The underground pipes that provide our drinking water and that convey our sewage away from homes and businesses are typically hidden from sight, but are increasingly drawing attention through catastrophic failures.

While the cause of the MWRA pipe burst is not yet clear (officials report the pipe was only 7 years old), this incident signals that continued oversight and investment is needed to keep our water infrastructure working to protect health and the environment.

In 2009, New England spent around $113M in federal funds on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure (plus $2.2M or more in state funds and further expenditures by cities and towns).   The U.S. EPA has estimated New England’s needs at $11.5B for drinking water infrastructure and $8.5B for wastewater infrastructure over a 20-year period.  A national EPA “gap analysis” backed by the General Accounting Office found that unless rates of spending on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure increase substantially, we will come up short by about $500B for necessary upgrades by 2020.  Industry groups representing the operators of drinking water and wastewater systems agree, and the American Society of Civil Engineers has rated U.S. water infrastructure a “D-.”

Major upgrades are also required for our storm sewer systems (the pipes that channel rain water from street catch basins, parking lots, and driveways into nearby rivers and streams) to reflect modern pollution removal methods and to prevent sewage from mixing with the rain water. (Recall the sewage overflows that occurred during storms this past March.)

How to fill the investment gap?

The U.S. EPA and state environmental agencies provide funds for all of the above through loans and grant programs, but these won’t fill the gap entirely.  One proposal in Congress, introduced yesterday, would remove caps on private investment and could potentially create new jobs and bring in significant tax revenues.  Another would create a national trust fund supported by taxes on corporations.  Another option is for local water and sewer rates to increase to reflect “full cost pricing.”

In Massachusetts, a Water Infrastructure Finance Commission has been convened, and CLF will be involved in the discussions.

If there is any silver lining to this incident, it is that we have been reminded how much we rely on our water and wastewater systems – and how disruptive the consequences will be if we don’t make the investment to manage them proactively.

To learn more, check out the trailer for Liquid Assets, a documentary about America’s water infrastructure, or EPA’s web site.


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