By Chris Sturm, New Jersey Future

July 2, 2016

Every day we are reminded by current events of how essential water and sanitation are to our very existence – whether it’s Flint, Michigan, droughts in California or the challenges of safe water and sanitation for underdeveloped countries. This dominates the news and is at the root of an increasing number of conflicts that will only become more serious. Water policy is one of the most essential things that this Congress ought to be able to address on a bipartisan basis. The facts are stark, the opportunities vivid, and public support is strong.

That is why I have spent a great deal of time focusing on issues of water and sanitation since I first came to Congress. Whether it is legislation for international water and sanitation that is critical not just for humanitarian reasons, but also to protect the environment and avoid conflict within societies or between nations because of water scarcity and shared river basins. I’ve worked on legislation reforming flood insurance, rewriting the Army Corps of Engineers’ outdated principles and guidelines that should inform their practices of water infrastructure and environmental management. And I’ve worked for a decade on the creation of a Water Trust Fund.

Unlike surface transportation, which has a dedicated Highway Trust Fund and a source of revenue, however inadequate, the federal government has no similar mechanism for water and sanitation. The status of our water infrastructure is appalling and getting worse while support from the federal government has been in decline. In fact, there has been a slow, steady retreat on water infrastructure spending since the Carter administration.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has rated water infrastructure a “D.” We have almost 170,000 drinking water systems around the country, and while the useful life of pipes can be sometimes up to 100 years, we have facilities that date back to the 1800s.

A water main breaks every two minutes. The American Water Works Association anticipates the need of a trillion dollars over the next 25 years to replace the most critical of more than a million miles of pipe, while congressional appropriations have declined to less than $1.5 billion a year, a tiny fraction of our needs.

The total mileage of sewer mains in the Unites States is unknown, but it’s probably between 700,000 and 800,000 miles. Many of these pipes were installed right after World War II, and are approaching the end of their useful life. The sewer systems with ageing pipes and inadequate capacity mean almost a trillion gallons of untreated sewage each year that is discharged into our waterways. The total needs over the next 20 years for both sewer and water are almost beyond our comprehension, but current spending—it is clear—Is completely inadequate to meet the needs. The public and the scientists are finding more problems, which will argue for even higher standards.

That is why I have developed bipartisan legislation for creation of a Water Trust fund.  I’ve been working on this for years with different bipartisan partners. Given that there appears to be little appetite now in Congress for any tax or fee increase, I’ve adjusted the bill so that the revenue comes from voluntary participation by companies that have a keen interest in clean drinking water and adequate sanitation—indeed their very business depends on it. They would be able, for a tiny fee, to voluntarily identify as being supportive of the Water Trust Fund—a little seal of approval would raise several billion dollars a year. This could be used to deal with the problems of low-income ratepayers that make it hard for overall rates to be increased and to leverage more investment at a time of remarkably low costs of borrowing. We could have significant investment to deal with some of the greatest and most urgent problems facing our water systems.

This is by no means the entire answer to the looming crisis. But we shouldn’t wait for the next Flint, or problems in drought-stricken California agricultural communities, or some other municipal breakdown—we should start now. I urge my colleagues to cosponsor my bipartisan Water Trust Fund legislation, H.R. 4468. Let’s get started.

You can view Congressman Blumenauer’s remarks on C-SPAN.