The Problems & Progressive Local Solutions
The need for updates to U.S. water infrastructure is critical and widespread. The last robust national update to water infrastructure occurred following the Clean Water Act during the 1970s. Many pipelines are still made from lead, a relic from the construction practices of the 1920s. Furthermore, the updates that occurred in the 1970s largely impacted wastewater systems, leaving water infrastructure, especially drinking water infrastructure, rapidly deteriorating.
This issue is further exacerbated by the threat that our changing climate poses to water systems – how are utilities and cities to face climate-induced challenges such as harmful algal blooms, increased precipitation or extended periods of drought as they become far more frequent? Cities and water utilities are thus increasingly faced with a dilemma: either water services rates must increase to accommodate the needs for infrastructure repair, replacement and expansion, or water rates remain static so as not to price out ratepayers, but at the expense of operating an increasingly aging and failing infrastructure. At the fulcrum of this choice sits those most vulnerable to increases in rates: low-to-moderate income households, which are disproportionately made up of women and/or people of color.
Local governments should see water infrastructure as critical infrastructure and as investments in public health. Through thoughtful updates in drinking, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure, local governments can avoid putting too much of a strain on households, make their water cleaner, and create a greener city.
Some of these investments have been removing lead-lined pipes, investment in green stormwater infrastructure, and finding creative ways to make sure water is affordable.
Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms
Private utilities are more difficult to engage, but not impossible. But there are multiple ways to engage your local government in improving water infrastructure. Mayors, City Councils, public works directors, utility directors, county boards, county executives, and utility commissions can and should all be engaged to develop a water infrastructure plan with an eye towards affordability.
Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them
The first step in moving forward with water infrastructure is assessing developing a framework for it, ProGov21 has resources for this. There are a few different guides to help with this framework, American Rivers wrote a guide about Integrated Water Management or IWM, The Mayors Innovation Project also put together a brief about IWM for cities. Another similar framework is “One Water,” which was developed by the US Water Alliance. The current state of the infrastructure. These two frameworks will help a city view their water infrastructure and resources holistically.
When it comes to drinking water, utilities and local governments want to make the needed investments to upgrade, all while keeping an eye on affordability. The University of North Carolina Environmental Finance Center has a brief exploring the legal pathways towards assistance and water affordability. The National Academy of Public Administration explores “Developing a New Framework for Community Affordability of Clean Water Services.” Seattle has taken a conservation of water approach, but still has centered making sure it is affordable. Philadelphia, PA in a water-rich area centering affordability with their Tiered Assistance Program that has developed income-based rates for their low-income residents.
But utilities and local governments will still need to finance these upgrades. The Mayors Innovation Project has a guide for financing water systems and Jersey Water Works has a brief on how to access state funding for water systems.
Taking it to the Next Level
Many local governments have been taking the next step, and this is a combination of efficiency with building for climate change. Sheboygan, WI is one of these with their water treatment plant, Philadelphia has made water a part of their sustainability plan, and LA’s Green Retrofit Ordinance includes language on water-efficient landscaping and irrigation.
Further, the ACEEE has a toolkit for efficiency in water and wastewater treatment and the EPA put together A Guide to Developing and Implementing Greenhouse Gas Reduction Programs in water and wastewater treatment.
The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has a brief about protecting homes and businesses from rain during climate change, they also explore “The Value of Green Infrastructure.” The NRDC put together a case study on Syracuse, NY on green infrastructure. Washington, DC made sure to include increased risk of flooding and stormwater as they plan for climate adaptation. For cities that aren’t as rich in water resources, Tuscon, AZ put together a long-term water plan centering conservation.
Beyond rates and climate change, the American Sustainability Business Council explores in Clean Water in the Upper Mississippi River Basin: Economic Importance, Threats, and Opportunities and The Business Case for Clean Water in the Upper Mississippi River Basin, why investing in water and clean waterways is a path towards economic development.
Helpers & Allies
- Mayors Innovation Project
- Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT)
- UNC Environmental Finance Center
- Water Center at Penn
- US Water Alliance
- American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEE)