The Message Congress Needs to Hear As It Debates Our Water Infrastructure Needs

Evan Isaacson

June 22, 2017

Last fall, the Senate directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to contract with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to conduct an independent study on affordability of municipal investments in water infrastructure. As someone who spent several years within the halls of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, I was honored to contribute to NAPA's research efforts by responding to a survey with suggestions for public administrators and communities struggling to meet the challenges caused by massive underinvestment in water infrastructure and the growing threats that poses to public health and water quality.

The specific questions that NAPA has been charged with answering are difficult. Over the years, EPA has developed an ever-evolving set of guidance documents with an increasing degree of complexity for state and federal regulators and the regulated community of municipal agencies and water utilities. A certain degree of complexity is inevitable in order to respond with sufficient flexibility to the myriad and unique fiscal and engineering challenges that each community faces.

Despite the complexity of EPA's framework for determining and applying affordability guidelines in practice and the severity of our nation's deteriorated water infrastructure, I would argue that NAPA should deliver a concise and straightforward message to Congress: There are no silver bullets that will resolve our water infrastructure crisis, and no corners that can be cut. Only when lawmakers reckon with the scale and importance of the issue can we begin to devise effective solutions.

For too long, we have allowed false narratives to create the illusion that simple solutions await us. Everyone who's paying attention acknowledges that our water infrastructure is in awful shape. Likewise, nobody disagrees that fixing this problem will cost a substantial amount of money. And yet, rather than working with local, state, and federal lawmakers to figure out how to raise sufficient revenues to deal with the problem, many choose to attack EPA, which seems to be the scapegoat of choice these days. Shooting the messenger never solves the problem.

Attacking EPA or federal statutes like the Clean Water Act or Safe Drinking Water Act, rather than confronting the source of the problem – a shortage of funding – is obviously counterproductive. What may be slightly less obvious, but equally counterproductive, is the status quo "solution" of trying to balance our collective water management, regulation, and infrastructure development needs on the backs of ratepayers.

Just because our water and wastewater needs have traditionally been serviced by municipal utilities, with financing provided through water bills, does not mean that we must continue to finance water differently from other essential municipal services. Experts recognize that local water utilities and governments have traditionally underinvested in water infrastructure and that the price we pay for water does not come close to reflecting its true cost. Perhaps if we also acknowledged that we can't count on local government and utility officials to raise rates when needed, we would have never gotten to the point we find ourselves at today.

One solution I posed in my survey response is a much greater diversification of funding sources. We need to look beyond water rates to state and federal funding sources and to less regressive forms of financing, such as income and property taxes and bonds that are repaid by these funds.

Moreover, to ensure that rising water rates do not further harm low-income (and increasingly, middle-income) households in many communities with stagnant or falling wages, we also need to make sure that EPA's affordability framework promotes, or perhaps requires, low-income customer assistance programs, which are still relatively uncommon.

There is simply no way that many communities can keep up with the cost of repairing and developing the infrastructure they need to deliver clean and safe water without turning to new sources of funding. Low-income households and small communities should not have to face this problem alone.

Flint, Michigan, is a case study in what not to do. There, a state government indifferent to community concerns allowed a cash-strapped local government to fend for itself and ignored warning signs about the hazardous condition of local source water and drinking water infrastructure. Many lives were impacted or ruined and the state government ended up spending hundreds of times more money on things like shipping bottled water to fix the mess caused by their "cost cutting" move. We cannot ship bottled water to each household in the United States. As the wealthiest nation on the planet, it is unacceptable for clean and safe water to be considered a luxury that must be purchased at additional cost. Everyone deserves clean water.

Which brings me to the final point I made in the survey. In revising and updating its community affordability and integrated municipal water planning frameworks, EPA must do a better job of working with communities and state regulators to provide educational resources. The first step is simply to recommit to working through these frameworks alongside communities to help them maximize their water investments while minimizing the financial burdens on low-income households.

Congress is currently considering a bill that would not only affirm its support of the integrated municipal planning framework and household and community affordability analyses, but would provide new resources to EPA to establish an ombudsman that would work with communities. It is important that Congress provide sufficient funds for staffing and other resources for the ombudsman.

A new office at EPA could be charged with:

  1. Devising the right formula for determining which communities are eligible to modify existing plans and compliance schedules based on affordability concerns, as well as conditions for participation;  
  2. Developing a library of resources to provide all communities and regulated utilities with an understanding of the direct and indirect economic, environmental, health, and other benefits of their investments; and  
  3. Facilitating widespread use of integrated planning tools (making the process as simple as possible) so that the communities are able to develop optimized plans that sequence infrastructure projects in a way that maximizes co-benefits and accelerates the highest priority projects.

The sooner municipal officials and utilities are given the tools and educational resources to help them understand the tremendous economic, health, and environmental benefits of investing in infrastructure to deliver clean and safe water, the more likely they will be to do so. A growing number of cities around the country are far along in this process and are loudly championing the process of planning and managing water needs in a holistic and integrated fashion. As more cities and water utilities come to see the advantages of investing in green infrastructure and innovative solutions, they too will act to protect the health of their neighborhoods, restore local streams and lakes, and stimulate their local restoration economy.

But first, Congress needs to learn these lessons itself. Creating a fully staffed new office for the ombudsman at EPA would be a good start. Better yet, Congress needs to substantially raise direct federal investment in clean water and drinking water grants through state revolving loan funds; at least tripling the current annual appropriation would be helpful.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Congress needs to weigh in on the destructive debate going on regarding whether or not it is too costly to invest in the infrastructure that we all openly acknowledge we need to provide clean and safe water to all Americans. What is perhaps most costly is the highly partisan rhetoric and dangerously ideological policies we have heard lately that pit EPA and utilities against each other, leaving communities to suffer the consequences in the form of poisoned water. 

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