Clean Water, at Any Rate

In this week's New York Times Charles Duhigg detailed the problems public drinking water and wastewater utilities face when they attempt to raise rates to upgrade and repair infrastructure. Duhigg cites an EPA estimate that "$335 billion would be needed simply to maintain the nation's tap water systems in coming decades." Surprisingly, he did not mention a number of proposed and existing options to help meet some of those funding needs, none of which involve raising rates to households or businesses.

Last year, citing the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2009 report card, which gave our nation's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure a grade of D-, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore) introduced H.R. 3202 - The Water Protection and Reinvestment Act. The Act, which currently has 29 Democratic co-sponsors in the House and 4 Republican co-sponsors, would establish a trust fund to "provide a deficit-neutral, consistent and protected source of revenue to help states replace, repair, and rehabilitate critical drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities." The Government Accountability Office issued a report identifying sources of revenue for the trust fund that could total as much as $10 billion annually, none of which involve raising water rates. Supporters of the legislation include the ASCE and the American Public Works Association; however, the bill is not without its detractors.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) criticized the legislation at a hearing last summer. The Association's primary objections center on federal control of a fund that would be distributed primarily through grants. Instead, the organization would prefer low-cost financing and subsidies for local water systems that would be administered at the state level through a Water Infrastructure Bank.

A limited but more immediate source of funding comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the federal stimulus funds allocated last year), which has $6 billion designated for the Clean Water Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water Revolving Fund administered by states.

Of course all of us can support our municipal water systems by not buying bottled water and drinking tap water instead. Investments in municipal systems have declined, in part, because of our increased support of bottled water, which is both unwarranted and extravagant. For the average price of a bottle of water you could get about 3,000 gallons of tap water. The money Americans spend on bottled water is money our municipal water and wastewater systems desperately need. Alternately, states could enact fees on beverage containers that would be designated to fund water and wastewater infrastructure improvements, similar to the way New York State's Bottle Bill designates fees collected on certain bottles to support trash and recycling infrastructure.

Certainly, increasing rates is appropriate in communities where they have been set too low, but clean, clear water is so essential to public health and well being that it warrants public funding. Proposals to accomplish that, such as the Water Protection and Reinvestment Act, deserve close scrutiny and support.