Wonk Wednesday: Jumping into Water Infrastructure
The following post is authored by Katie Harris, BlueGreen Alliance Deputy Legislative Director.
Our nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure is vital to the protection, treatment, and distribution of clean water. However, age, strain from population growth, lack of investment, the pervasiveness of lead pipes, and emerging threats from climate change have increased the burden on the current water infrastructure system and health risks to communities. The nation’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure received grades of “D+” and “C-” by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), respectively. The good news is that investing in our water infrastructure is a win-win. Water infrastructure investments will boost our economy, create and sustain thousands of jobs while ensuring communities have safe water and water systems resilient to climate change.
The American Jobs Plan
The American Jobs Plan sets us on the right path by proposing a historic investment of $111 billion dollars in our water infrastructure, including $45 billion for lead service line replacement, $10 billion for Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) remediation and small water systems, and an additional $56 billion in “grants and low-cost flexible loans to states, tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities across the country.”
While $111 billion is significant, it is still only a fraction of the $434 billion investment gap identified in the ASCE 2021 infrastructure report card (Table 1). The American Jobs Plan does not define how the $10 billion for PFAS and small water systems—nor the $56 billion for grants and loans—should be allocated. At minimum, Congress should ensure that $4.5 billion dollars is directed to PFAS remediation, and that the proposed $45 billion is maintained for lead service line replacement. Finally, the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) and other grant programs that provide funding for a variety of water infrastructure projects are key sources of water infrastructure improvement funding for state, local, and tribal governments. Both SRFs are oversubscribed and will require at least $130 billion in additional funding to meet maintenance and improvement needs.
Proposed water infrastructure investments and investment gap
American Jobs Plan
Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021
|ASCE Investment Gap|
|Overall||$111 billion||$36 billion||$434 billion|
|Grants and low-cost loans||$56 billion||$35.2 billion||$130-200 billion|
|Lead Pollution Remediation||$45 billion||$710 million||$45 billion|
|PFAS Remediation & Investment in Small Water Systems
$75 million (small water systems)
Last week, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 (DWWIA). DWWIA makes substantial investments: it authorizes funds for remediating lead in drinking water; reauthorizes the Drinking Water and Clean SRFs; makes permanent the Buy America provision in the Drinking Water SRF; starts a pilot program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for low-income water assistance; and authorizes funding for rural and disadvantaged communities. The bill is a great start to a bipartisan infrastructure package, but more will be needed to close the investment gap, truly fix and improve our water infrastructure, and create good jobs. However, Congress should fund investments at- and beyond the levels in DWWIA and the American Jobs Plan. Congress should:
- Fund the Clean Water SRF at $80- $100 billion over 10 years and the Drinking Water SRF at $50- $100 billion over 10 years;
- Permanently extend Buy America provisions for the Drinking Water SRF;
- Provide $17.5 billion over 10 years in funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program;
- Provide $45 billion over 10 years to the EPA for complete Lead Service Line (LSL) Replacement in all homes and child care centers;
- Invest $4.5 billion over 10 years in the cleanup of PFAS, dividing the investment to:
- Fund a grant program at $2.25 billion over 10 years to help affected community water systems pay for treatment technologies;
- Fund a grant program at $2.25 billion over 10 years to help publicly owned treatment works with implementation of a pretreatment standard; and
- Direct additional funding to low-income affordability programs for water and sewer services.
The need for water infrastructure investment
Many U.S. communities rely on pipes that are a century old. These pipes leak 6 billion gallons of clean drinking water daily—approximately 14% of treated water—wasting energy and water and disrupting businesses and communities. Additionally, there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in America—or 700 per day.
All that waste from ineffective water distributions systems adds up to a lost $2.6 billion a year in the United States, or enough water for 68 million Americans. Estimates suggest aggressive action to remedy our ailing water systems could save $1.7 billion, and a Chicago State University study showed that reducing the amount of water leaked annually in the U.S. by only 5% would save enough energy to power 31,000 homes for a year and cut 225,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions.
Climate change also strains our nation’s water infrastructure. One study from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) estimated that states will need an additional $448 to $944 billion dollars by 2050 to reengineer water systems to cope with sea level rise, extreme weather events, droughts, and floods. The SRFs are the main source of funding for states to not only update and maintain water infrastructure, but also to ensure that this infrastructure is resilient to climate change. The EPA estimates that just that capital cost of clean and drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years is $744 billion. Additional SRF funding will be necessary to ensure that our communities have water systems that can withstand the impacts of climate change.
Failing water infrastructure also has severe public health impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the existing challenges facing our water systems as access to clean, safe water for handwashing and disinfecting has become even more key to public health. Health risks to our communities were pervasive before the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 27 million Americans get their water from systems that violate health standards. Low income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by this contaminated water. Improperly managed water exposes communities to harmful chemicals such as lead, arsenic, and PFAS.
The American Jobs Plan funds a significant down payment on PFAS cleanup, and would provide enough funding to fully replace every lead service line in the United States ($45 billion). Congress must preserve these levels of funding in the enacted American Jobs Plan. There are an estimated 6.5 to 10 million homes with lead service lines serving 15 to 22 million Americans. As these pipes corrode, lead can enter the drinking water supply, exposing communities to a host of health problems. Eliminating lead exposure in our water systems not only keeps communities safe and healthy, but also creates family-sustaining jobs and boosts local economies.
President Biden’s plan also targets 40% of investments to disadvantaged communities—an important distinction for water infrastructure. Maintenance and improvement of water infrastructure is increasingly difficult for communities to afford. As these costs are passed on to consumers, existing affordability problems are exacerbated for many communities and individuals across the country. Congress can also address this problem by targeting water infrastructure funding to the communities that need it most; especially low-income communities, communities of color, and deindustrialized communities.
Driving job growth
Advancing our nation’s water infrastructure through economic recovery will create numerous family-sustaining jobs. Investing now to repair our failing water infrastructure will boost our economy, create and sustain thousands of jobs, ensure communities have safe and affordable water, and reduce pollution while combating climate change.
BlueGreen Alliance research has found that by investing $105 billion over ten years, we could improve our drinking and clean water systems to a “B” grade and create 654,000 job-years across the U.S. economy. With strong labor and procurement standards, among other policies, we can make sure that these jobs are good jobs.
Good jobs can be created through the replacement and upgrade of pipes, treatment plants, storage tanks, and the installation of green infrastructure projects. Gray water systems, water reuse-recycling, hot-water circulating systems, and rainwater catchment systems help conserve water and the energy used to treat and transport it, and create jobs in the industries supplying these technologies. Investments in water recapture, reuse, and transport will save water and energy, improve water safety, reduce the carbon dioxide emissions from pumping water, and create jobs to improve our nation’s water infrastructure.
If all levels of government, as well as utilities, make efforts to improve hiring, training, and retention efforts, we will see growth in jobs such as plumbing, pipefitting, steam fitting, pipe laying, industrial coating application, and other related jobs. The plumbing, pipefitting, and steamfitting industry employs 324,500 workers and is expected to see job growth around 15.6% through 2026. Similar job growth will occur in other water infrastructure jobs—pipelayers will see a 17.2% increase above the current 33,810 jobs, and other related jobs will see an 18.6% increase.
Water infrastructure investments would greatly benefit the construction industry, but job growth would be accelerated in every sector of the economy. This means increased numbers of steelworkers, utility workers, painters, and other union workers to manufacture, maintain, and operate these systems. We need steelworkers to manufacture the pipes, painters to apply the industrial coatings that protect water infrastructure from corrosion, plumbers and pipefitters to replace lead service lines, and utility workers to ensure that drinking water is clean and wastewater is treated and made safe for the public and the environment.
All of these investments must go hand in hand with measures to ensure these jobs are quality jobs, strengthen domestic manufacturing, and create positive outcomes for the communities in which the investments are happening. Buy America procurement requirements have a long-standing history of maximizing the return on investment to taxpayers and the American economy. Requiring domestic content in infrastructure projects has the potential to boost American workers and manufacturers, and create broad economic growth while spurring domestic manufacturing. According to the Alliance for American Manufacturing, Buy America provisions lead to a 33% increase in manufacturing jobs per dollar of public spending. Further, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that water projects subject to Buy America provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 cost less than estimated, refuting the common argument that Buy America provisions lead to delays and higher project costs. Important provisions to ensure that communities see benefits and the jobs created by infrastructure investments are good jobs include:
- Davis-Bacon prevailing wage provisions;
- Local hire requirements;
- Project labor agreements (PLAs) and community benefits agreements;
- Buy America domestic content standards; and
- Hiring and procurement policies that benefit low-income communities, people of color, and women.
If enacted, the American Jobs Plan would provide the investments in water infrastructure necessary for communities to maintain access to safe drinking water, adequately treat storm and wastewater, adapt to the effects of climate change, and create good jobs. As Congress works to turn this plan into legislative text, it must preserve and increase the investments in the American Jobs Plan to fully address our nation’s water infrastructure needs. This can be accomplished by maintaining funding levels for PFAS cleanup, lead service line replacement, and small water systems, and increasing funding to the SRFs and other grant programs that provide state, local, and tribal governments with water infrastructure funding. For the health of our communities and our economy, we cannot wait any longer to address our water infrastructure challenges.