A New Year’s Resolution

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – January 5, 2012 – Comment

I’d like to start this post by offering best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year to you and your family. Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? Perhaps you’re planning to stop procrastinating on something you’ve put off in the past (a diet, a career move, a new relationship?). I wouldn’t dare offer you advice on any of those topics – but I do wish you luck! As a nation, though, there is one resolution I wish we would collectively tackle for 2012. It’s crucial that we stop procrastinating on investments in water infrastructure – the pipes, pumps and plants involved in collecting, treating and distributing water.

Dr. Mark LeChevallierThe stakes were made abundantly clear just before the holidays, when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued a stunning new report titled, Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure.

 The report begins with the statement that, “Of all the infrastructure types, water is the most fundamental to life…” It goes on to outline, however, some potentially devastating consequences should we continue to under invest in water system repairs and improvements. These include increases in water-borne disease, unreliable water delivery, water shortages and disruptions, higher costs for consumers and businesses, and negative impacts on agricultural production. But it more than just lost water. The waste of water results in increased chemical use, energy, and the greenhouse gasses they represent – which could lead to climate change and long-term water problems.

The report cites EPA estimates that the level of water infrastructure investment in 2010 should have been more than $91 billion to fix leaking pipes, but only $36 billion was actually spent, leaving a funding gap of $55 billion. Sure, the past few years have been tough economically, but the problem is that the level of under investment in infrastructure has been a chronic problem. This chronic shortfall will lead to a funding gap of $84 billion in less than a decade according to ASCE.

ASCE engineers are not radical alarmists, I should add. Founded in 1852 as the Society of Civil Engineers and Architects the organization is the oldest national organization of engineers in the country and now includes more than 140,000 members. Perhaps the most radical step the group ever adopted was to drop the “and Architects” portion of its name back in 1869 (in fairness to ASCE, the architects had gone on to found their own group, the American Institute of Architects, several years earlier). All this is just to say it’s a relatively sober body, and one that produces thoroughly researched and deliberative reports and data, including more than 55,000 pages of technical content each year (they are engineers after all!).

When ASCE speaks, we would be well advised to pay heed. We need to recognize that water is precious and that investments in water infrastructure are an investment in our future. Let’s resolve to make water infrastructure funding a priority in 2012. One practical way to do this is to encourage Congress to remove the limits on private activity bonds – but that’s a topic for a future posting!