June 5, 2017
OTHER VOICES

U.S. needs more low-cost financing options for infrastructure repairs

Larry Bingaman

We have all experienced the frustration of bone-rattling potholes or traffic back-ups from emergency road repairs. Now keep those potholes and traffic jams in mind, but picture a separate, hidden infrastructure system that is larger and, in some cases, a hundred years older than those roads and bridges. You can't see it, but it ensures we are able to go about our daily routines without a second thought. It keeps our community healthy, our food growing, our manufacturing plants humming and the lights on in our homes and offices.

These are our water systems — underground, out of sight and out of mind. But they work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, to bring reliable, high-quality water to us. Unlike the potholed roads you see on your daily commute, these water systems — many of which were built for the America of a century ago, not modern metropolises and sprawling supply chains of today — don't show their age as easily.

But, what happens when these systems fail to keep up with our needs? You would not be able to make your coffee or give your dog a bowl of water. Forget about brushing your teeth, flushing the toilet or taking a shower. And that is just residential use. Commercial enterprises, from hospitals to breweries, factories to power plants, carwashes to restaurants, need water to survive.

Many communities around America have already experienced how terrible life is without reliable, high-quality water. Water contamination, epic drought, record flooding and infrastructure failure are stressing our nation's water systems.

A recent report issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers on the nation's water infrastructure reaffirmed the need to invest in it. Its report card gave our nation's water infrastructure a "D" for not making the investments needed to maintain and repair our water systems. It's reported that federal support for water infrastructure has fallen approximately 80 percent since 1980. And, it's estimated that we need to invest $1 trillion over the next 25 years to maintain current levels of reliable, high-quality water service for a growing U.S. population.

At the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (RWA), we provide public water service to more than 118,000 homes and businesses, or a population of about 430,000 in Greater New Haven. We operate and maintain more than 1,700 miles of pipe, 11 water treatment plants, including wellfields, 27,000 acres of watershed land, 10 lakes, three aquifers and other critical components such as hydrants, pumps, valves and storage tanks that deliver drinking water to our consumers' taps and support fire and emergency services.

We address the issues of aging infrastructure each year by preparing a prioritized projection of improvements, additions and renovations to the water system to provide for and protect the water supply, and to meet drinking water standards. We invest approximately $25 million to $27 million annually in infrastructure improvements.

Like the majority of American communities, the RWA uses tax-exempt bonds to finance local infrastructure improvements. All of us who pay for water service absorb the cost of this investment primarily through higher water rates since these improvements are the main driver for rate increases. As such, we need more solutions from Congress and more legislation that lowers the cost of borrowing for infrastructure projects.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency's Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, as well as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, provide low-interest loans and grants to help community water systems upgrade infrastructure to remain in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. We need to encourage our U.S. congressional representatives to stand behind more of these federal programs that provide funding to states to distribute for water infrastructure projects because they directly benefit citizens.

These programs not only help to hold down the cost of water projects, thereby mitigating increases in customer water rates to pay for the financing, but they help to boost the local economy, bolster America's workforce and sharpen our nation's competitive edge. Consider these facts: Every $1 invested in water and wastewater infrastructure increases long-term Gross Domestic Product by $6.35, and each job created in water and wastewater leads to 3.68 jobs in the national economy. Studies also show that the U.S. economy would stand to gain over $200 billion in annual economic activity and 1.3 million jobs over a 10-year period by meeting its water infrastructure needs.

When we consider everything that our water services deliver — protecting public health and the environment, providing fire protection, supporting our economy and assuring the high quality of life we enjoy — it's clear that water is too essential to ignore.

It's vital that each of us support our local elected officials and community leaders in making decisions necessary to address the infrastructure that connects, protects and supports clean, reliable water. Without strong voices advocating for this work, our water systems will continue to be out of site and out of mind. It is time we uncover this hidden infrastructure and make it a national priority.

Larry Bingaman is the president and CEO of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.

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