Photo: The San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, California. The reservoir and adjacent dam are among the water projects that could benefit from the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure bill, according to recent press reports.
Last week, the White House announced the American Jobs Plan, a far-reaching, economy-wide infrastructure and jobs investment proposal. While the plan proposes $621 billion for transportation infrastructure — what people typically think of when they hear the word “infrastructure” — surprisingly, the bulk of the proposal would go to community infrastructure, as in sustainable housing, broadband access, electric infrastructure and, critically, water. The proposal comes not a moment too soon.
The American Jobs Plan proposes $111 billion for water infrastructure, but that is spread out over several initiatives, including: $45 billion to eliminate all lead pipes and service lines; $10 billion to monitor and remediate drinking water contaminants and invest in small, rural water systems; $56 billion to upgrade and modernize America’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems; and $16 billion to plug oil and gas wells that contaminate local water and air quality. Additional funds earmarked in this infrastructure bill would address the effects of drought in the western U.S. along with investments in resilience solutions for areas disproportionately affected by climate change.
Comprehensive in nature, these solutions aim to tackle water from several different angles. Typically, policies tend to silo water quality and water quantity. Further, problems relating to climate change, such as nature-based infrastructure, tend to be put into another silo. Developing a plan that uses water as the connector makes sense as these issues often overlap.
While pipe materials or industrial processes may lead to poor quality, pressures on water quantity can also case degradation in the quality of water. For example, in Guanajuato, Mexico, the depletion of aquifers for a thirsty agricultural sector has led to toxic levels of arsenic in local drinking water supplies. California’s breadbasket, the Central Valley, has long endured similar problems. And restoring wetlands and watersheds, often viewed through the resilience lens, also helps protect water quantity.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently released its 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. As of now, water infrastructure report cards are not ones you’d want to take home to your parents.
Dams scored a “D.” According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, more than 2,300 dams fall under the category of deficient high-hazard-potential, meaning if these dams failed, the result would likely be a direct loss of human life and extensive property damage. The high number of dams in this category is due to lack of adequate investment.
Drinking Water scored a “C-.” While increased attention has led to better strategies and smarter investments, the system as a whole remains critically underfunded and beyond its planned life expectancy. A water main breaks every two minutes in the U.S., resulting in an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day — which also results in compounded losses due to the energy-water nexus. It takes water to generate electricity (using fossil fuel- or nuclear-powered electricity) and treating moving water requires an extensive amount of electricity. The high volume of water loss flushes money down the drain and generates unnecessary associated emissions.
Stormwater scored a “D.” With climate change leading to more economic losses due to flooding throughout the country, the state of stormwater infrastructure is a serious concern. While stormwater infrastructure runs the gamut extensive concrete storm sewers to flood control reservoirs, urban centers in particular face challenges with the rising costs of infrastructure upgrades, particularly after suffering repeated flooding events.
Wastewater scored a “D+." Like drinking water infrastructure, much of the wastewater infrastructure is old and underfunded. In fact, 15 percent of the country’s 16,000 wastewater treatment plants exceed their design capacities. Further, in some urban areas, extreme weather can stress the system. As an example, Austin Water has issues boil water notices twice in the last three years - once after catastrophic flooding and again after this year’s ice storm.
In addition, events in recent years have raised alarm about the toxic levels of chemicals in drinking water, most recently in Jackson, Mississippi. And while lead in water makes the news, especially from places like Flint, Michigan, other chemicals threaten our water supplies and public health.
For example, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), man-made chemicals used in many everyday consumer goods like nonstick cookware as well as water- and stain-resistant clothing and furniture, are extremely harmful in low doses and do not break down in our bodies. The American Jobs Plan specifically targets money to monitor and remediate PFAS in our water systems, and Michael Regan, the new head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Program, called out the necessity of addressing them during his confirmation hearing in the Senate. To further drive the point home, a nine-month study conducted by Consumer Reports and The Guardian found that 118 of 120 samples taken had levels exceeding Consumer Reports’ recommended maximum for PFAS, arsenic and lead.
America’s water infrastructure has been at a critical level for some time, as systems built in the first half of the 20th century have already started to age, and now they confront added pressures from population growth in urban areas and accelerating climate change. A major push, like the White House’s infrastructure bill, could jumpstart investment across the broader water sector. Further, by tackling the problems facing the sector with a broader stroke and creating solutions strategically, investors and policymakers could uncover even more efficiencies. Some have called this plan a “moonshot” for water. As our most critical resource, water deserves nothing less.
Image credit: Fredrick Lee/Unsplash
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.