Forty years ago, the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution went into effect. The Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, known as the Clean Water Act (CWA), became law after the bill was vetoed by President Nixon. In a tradition that continues to this day, the legislation was spurred on by bipartisan support and public opinion.
The House and Senate overrode the president’s veto on Oct. 18, 1972, by an overwhelming 10 to 1 margin, thus enacting the bill into law. Today’s modern water infrastructure programs have a rich history and enjoy both public support and a legacy of success. These programs, like the State Revolving Loan Funds (SRFs) and their predecessor, the Construction Grants Program, are recognized as the most successful federal water-quality funding programs in the nation’s history. The country must build on this legacy by making needed investments to ensure these successes do not evaporate over the next 40 years.
The Construction Grants Program
Prior to enactment of the CWA, local governments had long been responsible for paying to maintain and operate water systems on their own with their own ratepayers. That meant only major cities and wealthy towns had access to modern water systems. Much of that changed when the federal government began mandating quality standards for drinking water and wastewater discharge through legislation like the CWA (and later the Safe Drinking Water Act). The 1972 act set up the Construction Grants Programs to provide direct grants from EPA for the purpose of modernizing the nation’s wastewater and stormwater collection and treatment. As the program was transformed from grants to loans in 1987, Congress looked to replicate the successes of the program with the nation’s drinking water supply, ultimately passing the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996. This established another loan program for drinking water filtration facilities; collectively the two loan programs are known as the State Revolving Loan Funds or SRFs.
The Construction Grants Program was highly successful, providing more than $60 billion for construction through the 70s and 80s for publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities. The Clean Water SRF program has now funded over $89 billion, providing over 30,012 low-interest loans to date. These are huge contributions to national water quality, public health, and the environment. The number of people provided with advanced wastewater treatment increased dramatically (from 7.8 million people in 1972 to 113.0 million people in 2008). Moreover, the population not served by advanced wastewater treatment decreased from more than 50 million in 1972 to 3.8 million in 2008. Effluent discharged to the nation’s waterways decreased by between 23 and 45 percent, despite a 35 percent increase in both the population served and influent loadings.
Many rural communities, indeed many rural states, lack the resources needed to finance the construction of major infrastructure projects like safe drinking water systems and public wastewater systems. These federal investments in these rural communities are in many cases the only way to ensure the health, safety and economic vitality of sparsely populated rural communities. This is especially important when so much of our nation depends on the commercial traffic that travels through them and the agricultural products that come from them.
The Water Infrastructure Legacy
The Construction Grants Program and its successor programs represent the clearest federal commitment to water quality at the state and local level. But chronic underfunding of the SRFs by Congress and new and emerging regulations in the wastewater and drinking water arenas have left a huge gap in the water infrastructure field. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently estimates the combined wastewater and drinking water construction need between $400 billion and $600 billion over the next 20 years. Non-governmental sources put the estimate much higher – close to $1 trillion. EPA currently estimates a gap of $21 billion in what we currently spend on water infrastructure and what we need to be spending. Yet the federal commitment continues to decline. The systems installed in the 70s and 80s are reaching or have passed their operational lives, due to increased population, increased regulations, or simple age. Many systems are already in a state of unseen emergency. There are on average 700 water main breaks daily in the U.S. Drought conditions and other changing weather patterns are exacerbating this problem. An estimated 10 to 25 percent of clean, fresh drinking water is lost in transport from the filtration facility to your house or business due to leaks in buried pipe – a loss of 7 billion gallons of drinking water daily. And, EPA reports that 860 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage flows into rivers, lakes, and streams from sanitary sewer and combined sewer overflows.
This bipartisan de-emphasis of congressional and public support for water and wastewater infrastructure has dire consequences for public health, the environment, and our economy. EPA’s report on the Progress in Water Quality concludes that “without continued improvements in wastewater treatment infrastructure”… “future population growth will erode away many of the CWA achievements” to the point that we could start seeing pre-CWA levels of water quality as early as 2016. The American Society of Civil Engineers reports that without increased investment, businesses can expect $147 billion in increased costs, and households can expect $59 billion in increased costs. The average family budget will be squeezed by $900 as rates rise.
To ensure that the next 40 years do not give up the gains of the last forty, significantly more progress must be made on the country’s water and wastewater infrastructure. The highly successful SRF programs remain underfunded every year and are decades overdue for reauthorization. Water and wastewater infrastructure also remains the last major infrastructure category without its own dedicated funding source, leaving it subject every year to the highly politicized and partisan appropriations process. Other creative ideas include a water infrastructure bank, a Water Infrastructure Finance Authority similar in operation to a celebrated program for highway and bridge construction, and greater involvement of private capital and public-private partnerships. None of these ideas is the silver bullet that fixes the funding gap that plagues urban, suburban, and rural areas of our country. But the good news is none of the solutions are mutually exclusive. A bipartisan "all-of-the-above" approach would go a long way toward helping close the gap. Only working to close this gap can prevent public health disasters, environmental calamities, and significant harm to our nation’s economy.