World Water Day Part 1
More than two billion people across the globe don't have access to safe drinking water. World Water Day brings awareness to those clean water access issues. Read our two-part blog series today on how we must improve water infrastructure right here in the U.S.
This article was partially posted on May 5, 2021 and has been updated to reflect new investments in U.S. water infrastructure.
By Katie Harris, BlueGreen Alliance Legislative Director
Many U.S. communities rely on water infrastructure that is a century old. U.S. water pipes leak 6 billion gallons of clean drinking water daily on average—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 distribution 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 re-engineer 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.
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.
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 U.S. economy. Requiring domestic content in infrastructure projects has the potential to boost U.S. 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.
Everyone deserves access to safe drinking water. We must invest in our communities to make that happen by adequately treating storm and wastewater, adapting to the effects of climate change, and creating good jobs. For the health of our communities and our economy, we cannot wait any longer to address our water infrastructure challenges.
To learn about the latest federal investments in our water infrastructure, read part two of our World Water Day series.