By Alexandra Dunn. Water. A universal element without which we cannot live. When polluted and contaminated, public health is compromised. Children die every minute due to dirty water on our planet. The amount of freshwater on Earth is finite. As such, many experts say the next war will be over water.
Ensuring access to clean and safe water should be one of the top priorities of our nation. And yet, here in the United States, our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is crumbling – rated a D- by the collective civil engineering community. People pay more for satellite television and cell phone service per month than they do for drinking water and wastewater services.
When the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, rivers burned. Lake Erie was declared dead. The endangered sturgeon were gone from the Hudson River. Ecosystems were dying. And people who depended on the water environment for a living and to feed their families – commercial and subsistence fishers – found their livelihoods and tables threatened.
The Clean Water Act’s enactment over Presidential veto in 1972 marked a dramatic turn of events. It was what is known as a civic republican moment. When people come together and demand change. Among its dozens of powerful and useful provisions to control water pollutions, the Act put in place the Construction Grants Program for clean water infrastructure. The Program resulted in some of the largest public health gains of the past 50 years by building sewage treatment facilities, sewage conveyance systems, and related critical infrastructure. We did not build everything new – pipes in the ground today in many cities still date from the turn of the century and facilities built for 1970 level populations are now undersized. Nonetheless, the federal government stood hand in hand with states and communities as these investments were made. The water got cleaner. People and ecosystems got healthier. We recognized the critical value of clean and safe water.
In 1987, things changed. Congress replaced the grant program with the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund. The philosophy was that water is a local community issue, not a federal priority. Localities should be paying for the needed investments themselves. While elements of the philosophy certainly made sense, over time, the modest increases to the Fund have not kept pace with the investment needs. Today, water infrastructure investment is funded 90 percent by people like you and me through our water bills. The economy is weak, and water service rates can only go so high before people – especially the elderly and those of low income – can’t pay. Adding to the infrastructure stressors are a growing population and more intense and erratic wet weather events associated with climate disruption. The Environmental Protection Agency itself says without a recommitment to infrastructure investment we risk a return to the water quality crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Clean Water Act enters early middle age this year as it turns 40. Isn’t mid-life a time for reassessment of priorities? A gut check to see if we’re on the right path? Nothing could be more important to public health and the quality of life we want to enjoy in the future in our nation than clean water. It is time as a nation to develop and implement a sustainable funding source for our critical water infrastructure. We need our lakes, our rivers, our streams to be healthy so that we can be healthy. Let’s not take the gains of the past 40 years for granted. Clean water is worth our time, attention, and investment.
The Clean Water Act set forth an ambitious goal in 1972 – to restore the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of the nation’s waters. We are not there yet. It is time to recommit to, and reinvest in, water. For our health and the health of the environment and all that depends on clean water.