Rebuilding America’s water infrastructure with public-private partnerships

For much of the last century, America’s infrastructure cultivated innovation and progress. Our interstate highway system facilitated commerce and travel. The nation’s power grid expanded until virtually every household had access to electricity. And our water and wastewater systems raised the standard of living and helped water-reliant businesses and industries make the U.S. the strongest economy in the world.

August 04, 2016, 10:59 am
By D. Michael Langford and Susan N. Story

For much of the last century, America’s infrastructure cultivated innovation and progress. Our interstate highway system facilitated commerce and travel. The nation’s power grid expanded until virtually every household had access to electricity. And our water and wastewater systems raised the standard of living and helped water-reliant businesses and industries make the U.S. the strongest economy in the world.

But now we are at a crossroads. We see it play out on our television screens almost daily. America is experiencing an infrastructure crisis. Our water and natural gas distribution pipelines are aging, and our city’s bridges, tunnels, and streets, are falling apart.

A case in point, many communities are struggling to maintain a way of life with failing water and wastewater infrastructure systems and limited dollars to update, maintain, and expand systems that were put in place 50 to 100 years ago. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States—or about 650 breaks a day. They also estimated that leaking drinking water pipes result in the loss of 7 billion gallons of clean, drinking water each day.

But great challenges bring great opportunities. Replacing or repairing those pipes is a big job creator—and those jobs are generally good-paying jobs too. Improved systems will be more efficient, deliver safe water, and ensure that they are built for the impacts of a changing climate.

Of course, the price tag to fix this infrastructure is big. The ASCE estimates that $1 trillion is needed to make the necessary updates to the nation’s drinking water infrastructure. What’s more is that if we choose not to update our water and waste water infrastructure, we are facing an estimated $206 billion of increased costs for businesses and households by 2020.

That’s why it’s so important that we look at alternative solutions to finance our infrastructure crisis. Utilizing private investment is an opportunity to modernize today’s infrastructure while creating an avenue to have technologically advanced systems for decades to come.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s recent report, “Bridging the Gap Together: A New Model to Modernize U.S. Infrastructure,” outlined a vision for increasing private capital for infrastructure projects and provided a roadmap to overcoming barriers that discourage private investment. The report highlights key objectives necessary in fixing America’s infrastructure crisis, including encouraging partnerships with the private sector and ensuring communities across the country have the tools they need to make these infrastructure investments.

Right now, Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act, otherwise known as WRDA. The Senate version of this legislation includes important funding for water infrastructure, including increased funding for state revolving loan funds. The WRDA legislation could be enhanced if it also included important measures to encourage the many types of public-private partnerships that exist today, from funding to shared expertise to full transfer of assets.

By bringing together the public and private sectors, we can fix this national crisis, which is affecting so many communities across the United States.

Updating and expanding our infrastructure will not only keep communities and front-line workers safe, but will also create jobs, spur local economies, increase the efficiency of these systems, and ensure that our nation’s infrastructure is resilient for generations to come.

America can, once again, have the most modern and technologically advanced infrastructure systems in the world. We simply have to work together to make it happen.

D. Michael Langford is the National President of the Utility Workers Union of America. Susan N. Story is the President and CEO of American Water.