Massachusetts lacks money and needs clean water. This bind – one in which the state found itself following a June report – has forced a discussion policies that are raising the hackles of Massachusetts residents.
According to a report by the Massachusetts Water Infrastructure Finance Commission released in June, Massachusetts has a statewide “funding gap” of $21 billion to pay for its drinking water and wastewater systems over the next twenty years. The report found that cities and towns across the state are dealing with aging water and sewer systems – some from the 1800s. The cost of mere maintenance is substantial – let alone expansions of infrastructure to keep up with residential and commercial growth.
The Commission considered a variety of strategies to raise revenue, including new taxes on fertilizers or pesticides, a new bottle bill, and a statewide water surcharge. A surcharge would likely be 1 mil per gallon, or about $23 per year for the average individual. Naturally, the surcharge proposal has run into the loudest opposition.
In response, petitions are circulating for a 2012 ballot initiative which would cap water and sewer rate increases at 2.5% per year. Before rejecting rate increases, Massachusetts citizens should consider the true costs and benefits of water management systems.
Most municipal water systems combine stormwater and sewage, meaning that storms are causing sewer overflows because older systems aren’t equipped to handle large volumes. Nutrient pollution from inadequate sewage treatment creates toxic algae blooms, shuts down beaches, and disrupts ecosystems and tourism. The solutions to these problems may not be cheap, but they’re desperately needed. Until we manage wastewater and stormwater effectively, we aren’t paying the true costs of the infrastructure that delivers clean water to our homes and businesses.
Recognizing this need for massive investment in our nation’s infrastructure, the Obama administration proposed a “national infrastructure bank” over the past few months. The proposal would help local governments finance infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, and sewer systems. The bill passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support, but does not appear to have the same level of support in the House of Representatives. So states like Massachusetts may need to act on their own to ensure that municipalities have the resources they need to protect the public from sewer overflows and antiquated wastewater treatment systems.
Unless we want to face an uncertain future, our cities need the capability to repair, maintain, and enlarge their water and sewer systems when necessary. They also need capital to invest in green infrastructure projects like permeable pavement, rain gardens, and green roofs, which absorb and filter rainwater and decrease the amount of water pouring into sewer systems. Green infrastructure projects ultimately save cities money in the long run by reducing sewer inputs and thereby reducing the need for old-fashioned (“grey”) infrastructure like underground tanks and tunnels. Meanwhile, communities enjoy the benefits of new green space, carbon-mitigating wetlands, and Cities like Philadelphia and New York are already investing extensively in green stormwater management techniques, and anticipating millions in savings. (The Philadelphia Water Department has estimated that its new stormwater policies have diverted a quarter billion gallons of water from the sewer system, saving the city $170 million.)
Let’s stay tuned for the Commission’s final recommendations for Massachusetts, and consider all the options for financing our infrastructure needs in an equitable and manageable way.