Water is the Missing Ingredient from Infrastructure Talk

Eileen O'Neill, Executive Director, Water Environment Federation | June 20, 2017

As we hear a chorus of calls for increased investment in our nation’s infrastructure, there is often one word absent from the conversation – water.

Perhaps it is because water infrastructure is largely out of sight and therefore out of mind. Or maybe we take for granted that we can reliably turn on a tap and flush a toilet.  

But America’s water infrastructure – the pipes, pumps, and plants that move and clean our water – is in desperate need of attention. Much of the current water infrastructure was built decades ago and has outlived its lifespan, leaving it inefficient and even ineffective, while at the same time population growth and development require expanded services. Meanwhile, our systems are strained by floods, drought, storms, and sea level rise. The bottom line: over the next 10 years, all levels of government need to invest an additional $82 billion per year to meet projected needs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The good news is that water infrastructure offers an exceptional return on investment. If the funding gap was closed, it would result in more than $220 billion in annual economic activity in the country, as detailed in a new report from the Value of Water Campaign. The investments would also generate and sustain about 1.3 million jobs over a 10-year period.

In addition to construction and engineering jobs, the water sector offers outstanding career opportunities for a wide range of jobseekers. Many are STEM cluster jobs that don’t always require a bachelor’s degree, can’t be outsourced overseas, and are largely immune to changes in the economy. They are green jobs – cleaning water for our health and the environment – that pay family supporting wages and are necessary in every community. And up to half of the water sector’s operations personnel are expected to retire in the next decade.

This is an ideal time to boost investment because the water sector is transforming the way we treat and move water. Across the country, innovation and technology are taking hold, with the emergence of facilities that are reusing water, generating energy, and recovering nutrients. Funding can help accelerate this beneficial paradigm shift.

As the national conversation about infrastructure investment continues, let’s make sure water is no longer the missing ingredient. Focusing on roads, bridges, and airports alone won’t make the recipe work. Just add water. 

This blog was originally featured on the WEF WaterBlog