Opinion

Opinion: Infrastructure Bill Shouldn’t Ignore Our Aging Water Systems

A proper plan must invest in water and promote innovation

New York City workers pump water out of a street hole after a water main break in 2014. For many localities, the age, condition, and even the location of pipes can be a mystery until something breaks. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo)

Safe drinking water is the bedrock of public health. On that score, America is failing.

From lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, to toxic levels of arsenic found in Texas, over the past decade tens of millions of Americans have likely been exposed to dangerously unsafe water.

In his State of the Union address last month, President Donald Trump said it was “time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.” He is undeniably correct, and his call for $1.5 trillion in new investment is one that Congress should take up. Our collective failure to invest in infrastructure is a self-inflicted wound on the American economy, jeopardizing millions of jobs and threatening our health and safety.

But the need to invest in our water and wastewater systems is as urgent and vital as building the “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways” President Trump spoke about. In its recent infrastructure proposal, the administration included potential funding for a variety of water projects, and backed an expansion of water infrastructure financing tools. However, its fiscal 2019 budget proposal, released at the same time, has faced sharp criticism for proposing cuts to the EPA’s budget. Including water infrastructure in the funding debate is an important step, but far more needs to be done.

Buried underground, water infrastructure is all too easy to forget. The systems that collect, treat and distribute our drinking water, wastewater and stormwater are aging. With hundreds of thousands of systems across the country, spread across all levels of government, bold federal leadership will be key to fixing our water infrastructure. However, since the mid-1970s, the federal share of funding for water infrastructure has steadily fallen, from over 30 percent in 1977 to only 4 percent today, representing a multigenerational trend we must reverse.

Watch: The State of the Union in 3 Minutes

This crisis stems from not just a failure to invest, but also a failure to innovate. Today’s advances in water technology use less energy, which can reduce life-cycle costs, promote sustainability, and help to provide clean and affordable water service. But as the Bipartisan Policy Center outlined in a 2017 report, existing barriers — from high risks and prohibitive costs to regulations and sector fragmentation — impede the development and adoption of innovative solutions. When human health and safety are at stake, there’s also no room for error.

One surprising barrier to innovation is that many cities and states do not know exactly what they own. The age, condition, and even the location of pipes can be a mystery until something breaks. To solve this problem, the city of Syracuse, New York, developed an innovative approach. It created a digital asset inventory with real-time sensors that monitor for leaks and water main breaks, while data-driven algorithms predict where the next break will occur.

Unfortunately, Syracuse is far from the norm. With most water systems struggling to maintain their existing infrastructure and keep the price of water affordable, the investment required to find, test and deploy a new technology can feel out of reach. Water innovation, at the level needed in the United States today, requires a far more conducive ecosystem. We need to reduce the barriers that prevent proven technologies from being deployed, and give researchers the space to take risks that could lead to new breakthroughs.

When faced with similar challenges in the defense and energy sectors, the federal government created the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy, or ARPA-E, little-known agencies that have made an incredible impact. DARPA has been directly credited with the creation of the internet, voice recognition and GPS devices. And after only nine years, ARPA-E has lowered energy costs and improved energy security, while attracting $1.8 billion in private-sector funding that has helped create 56 new companies.

Building off these successes, the 2018 infrastructure bill should create an ARPA-H2O. As the BPC and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus have said, ARPA-H2O would directly support high-risk, high-reward water technologies, which could prove to be game changers for both urban and rural water systems.

America’s infrastructure was once the envy of the world, but today, goals such as “modernize” and “rebuild” have become the limits of our ambition. As technological advances look to disrupt the infrastructure market, from autonomous vehicles to Hyperloops, our public policy must keep up. Any infrastructure plan that fails to both address our water needs and promote innovation will inevitably fall short of what our country needs.

Michele Nellenbach is director of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Senate Environment and Public Works Committee staff member.

Jake Varn is a policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center focused on infrastructure and housing issues.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.