When we talk about the decline of America’s infrastructure, we usually picture familiar scenes: commuters sitting in traffic, long waits for overcrowded metros and hour-long waits on the tarmac after planes pull away from a gate. Every American can see the rusting bridges and potholed roads in their communities, they know how many hours a week they lose to rush hour congestion. And it is easy to connect the dots between those poor conditions and how subpar infrastructure is a drag on our economy.
But less apparent to the naked eye are the millions of miles of underground water and sewer pipes that provide an absolutely essential service to our homes, businesses, farms and factories. Out of sight and out of mind for most Americans, these pipes are the arteries that carry our nation’s jobs, businesses, and productivity. That is why last week, on Sept. 15, more than 500 organizations came together to “Imagine a Day Without Water,” to raise awareness about the fact that the treatment plants and pipes that bring such an essential service to us are aging and stressed, putting our jobs, families and economy at risk.
It is no accident that the economic boom in the late 19th- and mid-20th centuries — that built the middle class and made America the greatest economic power in the world — coincided with an energetic and unprecedented public investment in the nation’s water and transportation infrastructure.
Great water projects became an engine for economic and productivity growth: aqueducts carrying water to cities, farms and factories; distribution systems to put a tap in every home, and protect homes and businesses from fire; and treatment plants to ensure healthy families and a secure, stable workforce. Sanitary sewers and clean drinking water dramatically improved public health and safety and continue to be vital to every community.
Too many communities, however, are running on crumbling, aging water infrastructure — and borrowed time. Nationally, more than one in five water mains are more than 50 years old, and nearly half (43 percent) are between 20 and 50 years old. Across the country, water systems are coming to the end of their useful life. Some cities still have wooden pipes in the ground, installed as early as the Civil War.
Deferred maintenance and the cost of decades of neglect are adding up. Nearly 50 percent of mayors surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2015 rank water and wastewater investment a top three priority for their cities.
A water main breaks somewhere in America once every two minutes. Unable to plan ahead of time for these emergencies, repairs are incredibly expensive and disruptive to commuters and commerce. Taxpayers and ratepayers end up footing the bill: America’s approximately 250,000 water main breaks cost $2.6 billion annually.
The American Society for Civil Engineers estimates that the gap between what America is investing in water/wastewater infrastructure, and what it needs, is more than $100 billion. Failing to close this gap over the next decade would be disastrous for America’s economy, hampering day-to-day commerce, resulting in losses of more than $500 billion in gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025, and jeopardizing nearly 500,000 jobs.
Without reliable water service, America’s economy would grind to a halt. Several manufacturing sectors — steel and metals, automotive, silicon and advanced materials, to name a few — demand reliable, affordable, clean water. Along with agriculture and energy, these very water-reliant sectors account for 25 percent of America’s economy.
Investing in water infrastructure is investing in America’s economic vitality. Reliable water doesn’t just make other sectors run; it creates good-paying jobs for friends and neighbors. A study by the Water Research Foundation surveyed water utilities in 30 large cities, representing a quarter of America’s population, and found that adequate investment would create 289,000 permanent jobs, generate $19 billion annually in labor income and more than $50 billion in economic output.
These investments support other economic sectors, and countless jobs that rely on them: America’s bartenders and brewers, baristas and waiters, factory workers and farmers depend upon safe, affordable, reliable water.
A day without water is a crisis. Our health and safety, our livelihoods and economy, all depend on water. And to build the kind of America that we want future generations to enjoy, we’re going to have to invest in our water systems, just like generations before us did. That way, every community, today and for years to come, can thrive.
LaHood is the former secretary of Transportation and Rendell is the former governor of Pennsylvania.
This article was originially featured in The Hill.