By Eileen O'Neill, Executive Director, Water Environment Federation

April 7, 2015

Water is essential. Every community, every household in America depends on it. Reliable, safe water supplies are a bedrock of our communities and our economy.

The truth is, the availability of safe, clean water is something most Americans assume they have and don’t give it much thought. But communities facing drought, at-risk water supplies or aging water infrastructure know that they are dealing with a crisis if water is not safe and accessible.

The infrastructure that delivers reliable water service to and from homes, farms and manufacturers is often invisible to consumers, which can be good. 

It means we have succeeded as a nation in making an essential 24/7 service available to the majority of Americans at an affordable price, but we also need to be cognizant of the fact that water infrastructure we rely on has aged. In many communities it is more than a century old. 

In fact, a water main break occurs somewhere in America every two minutes. Our outdated systems are wasting billions of gallons of water each year, which is unconscionable when millions of Americans are living in epic drought conditions.

In Washington infrastructure debates, it is often said that there is no Republican bridge or Democratic pothole. Water faces the similar, nonpartisan stance. Water is an issue of economic, environmental, community well-being. 

This week, hundreds of water and wastewater providers are gathering on Capitol Hill for Water Week 2015 to stand together on this issue. They are on the front lines in their communities, grappling with the challenges of aging infrastructure, trying new and innovative methods for delivering water and value to their customers, and talking to Congress about what we can do to help.

Water is usually addressed and maintained on the local and state level, but the federal government has a significant role to play, and there needs to be a strong partnership. 

Local water providers are responsible stewards of their water and wastewater systems, and they need flexibility to meet standards based on their region, infrastructure and expertise. One recent success story in providing more local flexibility is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Permitting Initiative, which allows for local flexibility tied to federal standards that accelerate water projects that move our communities forward.

Congress needs to step up and address authorization of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, and also to make implementation of the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act a priority. This five-year pilot program will act as a complement to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund as a loan and loan guarantee program to provide credit assistance for drinking water, wastewater and water infrastructure projects.

Our current water policy in America needs all hands on deck. Federal policymakers should encourage and incentivize private sector capital interested in infrastructure projects, creating a public-private partnership that can offer a long-term, steady return on investment. We need to engage the scientific and academic community to provide research and insight on the most creative and cost-effective solutions to our water challenges.

Many groups, including the hosts of Water Week and the Value of Water Coalition, bring together public and private water providers, private sector interests and other stakeholders to raise awareness about the serious challenges facing our water infrastructure and resources. 

Water issues need to remain a priority as drought conditions worsen in California and East Coast cities emerge from a brutal winter. We must make sure water providers have the support they need to move forward with creative funding solutions to our pressing water issues.We need policies that will help cut the bureaucratic red tape and make large projects more attainable. Our communities and our economy depend on these partnerships.

Gibbs represents Ohio’s 7th Congressional District and has served in the House since 2011. He sits on the Agriculture and the Transportation and Infrastructure committees. Napolitano represents California’s 32nd Congressional District and has served in the House since 1999. She sits on the Natural Resources and the Transportation and Infrastructure committees.

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