Approximately 3.7 million Americans live within a few feet of high tide and are at risk whenever there is coastal flooding — we rely on the infrastructure that protects us from it. The precarious balance we maintain with our water infrastructure was illustrated with the destruction caused during and after Hurricane Sandy. It’s time to recognize the importance of the pipelines, dams and other barriers that make up our water infrastructure with proper investments.
The storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy submerged property and put neighborhoods and homes that were thought to be a safe distance from water in harms’ way, endangering lives. Millions of public transit riders were stranded for days. Subway tunnels were flooded with over four feet of water.
The damage caused by this one storm only scratched the surface in terms of revealing the vulnerabilities in our water infrastructure.
The fact that we still rely on wooden pipes in some places to move water around would be shocking news to most people. As would the average of 850 water main breaks in North America that occur daily. According to a 2002 congressional study, corrosion of these systems costs over $50.7 billion annually. Are we at our breaking, or bursting, point?
The worst of what happened in New York and New Jersey could have been prevented with forethought and investment. This isn’t a problem that New York City or the East Coast can or should face alone though. This is a challenge for our whole country. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our nation’s infrastructure a grade of D, and in many key areas, such as wastewater management, a D-.
The infrastructure across the country is inadequate.
Now that federal aid for those affected by Hurricane Sandy has been approved by Congress, it’s time to have a serious conversation on how we can make the long-term investments that will strengthen and protect our water infrastructure.
Investments in our infrastructure can yield tremendous benefits, including jobs and stimulating local economies. Every $1 billion invested in water infrastructure is estimated to create more than 20,000 new jobs. Those are jobs that can be done by American workers and shouldn’t be outsourced. Further investments in our utilities and transportation systems will yield even more benefits and jobs, not to mention the benefits to workers in the concrete, steel and other U.S. industries creating the building blocks of a better infrastructure.
Our ‘to do’ list is long: Motors and electrical equipment must be waterproofed or raised above newly established flood levels and dams and levees may have to be built at some facilities to keep rising water levels induced by climate change and severe weather at bay. Failure to do so could leave population centers vulnerable to public health — like sewage in our streets and water — and environmental hazards in the future.
In addition to treatment facilities, we need to improve other water systems to prevent catastrophic damage from storms and the effects of climate change moving forward. These include projects like better levees and breakwaters to control floods, retrofitting homes and commercial buildings or moving structures away from floodplains; and restoring wetlands that mitigate flooding by acting as natural water sinks.
We need to protect the systems that treat, distribute, and protect clean drinking water. Yet age, continued strain from population growth, lack of investment, and emerging threats from climate change have increased the burden on our current water infrastructure system and waterways in the best conditions. When a storm surge hits, we’re not ready.
In addition, old infrastructure wastes valuable resources. Many U.S. cities rely on pipes that are, on average, a century old. Leaking pipes lose an estimated 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water a day and are known to leach contaminants and breed bacteria in drinking water, jeopardizing the health of our nation’s communities. Significant investments and upgrades will be necessary for communities to adapt to the effects of climate change, reduce the waste of a precious resource, maintain access to safe drinking water, and adequately treat storm and wastewater.
There’s a lot at stake. There are few needs more basic than water in our everyday lives. We must invest in our water infrastructure accordingly. America is ready to roll up our sleeves at get to work on this important task, but we need Congress to take up this challenge and get to work rebuilding the systems we rely on every day in every community across the country.