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Idea of the Day: America’s Wastewater and Drinking-Water Infrastructure Needs Support

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Of all the elements of our public infrastructure, our water systems are the most essential for the daily lives of Americans. The average American family of four uses roughly 400 gallons of water a day for drinking, washing, cooking, cleaning, and more. Businesses and industry throughout our nation also depend on clean water to keep their doors open and to manufacture thousands of goods we use or export every day. Indeed, commercial and institutional water-use amounts to roughly 17 percent of the total fresh water used in the United States. To put these figures in context, producing a single slice of bread requires some 10 gallons of water; producing a gallon of milk requires 1,000 gallons of water; and manufacturing a car uses more than 39,000 gallons of water.

But despite how critical clean drinking-water and sanitation systems are to both the U.S. economy and to public health, many of our drinking-water and clean-water (also called wastewater) systems have been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. Due to decades of insufficient or misdirected investment, a significant portion of water distribution and sewer systems are reaching or have already reached the end of their intended operational life and are beginning to fail. Every year thousands of aging water pipes burst, costing millions of dollars in repairs and economic losses, while outdated wastewater systems dump billions of gallons of untreated sewage into our rivers, lakes, and streams. These all-too-commonplace incidents endanger both the environment and public health, while also undermining economic growth.

Federal assistance-in the form of grants to drinking-water and clean-water state revolving loan funds-certainly helps many communities across our country finance thousands of projects that might not have been completed otherwise. But this source of funding alone will not be sufficient to meet projected needs and may become less so, given the proposed 36 percent budget cut in fiscal year 2013 for federal grants to state revolving loan funds for drinking water and wastewater recently approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. To address America’s deteriorating drinking-water and wastewater systems, significant additional public and private investment will be required, along with the political will to put in place reforms that make better use of the money already being invested.

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This is part of a regular column: Idea of the Day

For more from the same column, click here