Op-Ed: “When the Well is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water”
When we turn on the tap in the morning, clean water flows from the faucet. It’s an uninteresting and unremarkable fact of modern life — until, one day, no water comes out.
We have learned to take the reliability of our drinking water and wastewater disposal systems for granted. It’s only when there is a major problem — a large water main breaks, leaking sewage causes a beach closing, or a blocked drainage pipe causes flooding — that we start to pay attention to the thousands of miles of pipes, pumping facilities, and treatment plants that are part of our water infrastructure.
A reliable water infrastructure system is particularly vital to the Commonwealth’s economy. Many companies rely on water to do business, which makes strong water infrastructure an important factor when deciding where to locate. Just as Massachusetts has an emerging alternative energy sector, we also have a growing cluster of water innovation jobs, including engineering companies, water treatment technology firms and clean water entrepreneurs. Any comprehensive jobs plan should include a focus on improving the short- and long-term health of our water infrastructure system and promoting this burgeoning industry.
Despite its importance, our aging system suffers from a lack of investment, delayed maintenance, and insufficient resources. Hundreds of miles of pipes are kept in service far past their useful life, leading to lost water, sewage leaks and, in the worst cases, water main breaks.
At the same time, state and federal funding for water infrastructure has steadily declined over the past few decades. Our failure to maintain and upgrade our existing infrastructure threatens our ability to deliver clean water and keep wastes and toxic chemicals out of our environment without service interruptions.
The problem is serious – and increasingly urgent. A recent report from the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, which we co-chaired, estimated the gap between current funding for water infrastructure and the amount of funding actually needed to be $21.4 billion over the next 20 years. We need a significant increase in investment in our water infrastructure system, along with improved management to find efficiencies and cost savings, to reduce this gap.
The big question, of course: are we as a society willing to pay for it?
The hard truth is that the public is often unaware of the true costs of fully operating, maintaining and investing in our water infrastructure. Unlike other utilities, municipal water and sewer rates often do not come close to covering the full cost of providing clean water and eliminating waste, distorting our perception of the true cost of the clean water we drink.
We also often misunderstand the consequences of failing to invest, from the high costs of deferred maintenance and emergency repairs to the missed opportunity to grow our economy by strengthening our infrastructure.
The result is a lack of public attention to and support for policies that will ensure we have the resources necessary to rehabilitate our aging infrastructure and continue to provide safe, clean drinking water across the Commonwealth without interruption.
There is evidence, however, that the tide is changing. High profile water infrastructure crises, such as the Weston water main break of 2010, have caught the attention of the public and policymakers. Polling also suggests that voters value clean water and are becoming concerned about the state of the nation’s water infrastructure. A 2010 ITT Corporation survey of American voters found that:
- 95% valued water over any other services they received, including heat and electricity.
- Nearly 1 in 4 are “very concerned” about the state of the nation’s water infrastructure.
- 3 out of 4 stated that disruptions in the water system would have “direct and personal consequences.”
Significantly, the poll also found that voters are willing to pay more for their water services.
Finding the financial resources necessary to rehabilitate our aging infrastructure and create a 21st century water infrastructure system will be difficult, particularly in our current fiscal climate, but this challenge is too important to postpone for better times. It’s time to invest in our economic growth, our public health and the sustainability of our communities by investing in our water infrastructure.
Sen. Eldridge and Rep. Dykema co-chaired the state’s Water Infrastructure Finance Commission.
This entry reflects only the opinion of the writers and not the Community Advocate or its advertisers.
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