The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been reporting on the economic consequences of underinvestment in our nation’s infrastructure for some time. Their most recent report, Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future, highlights the economic gains in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), personal disposable income, exports, and jobs if we choose as a country to invest in our communities. 

I want to share with you some highlights of the report that pertain to water. Something that people often seem to forget is that of all infrastructure types, water is the most fundamental to life--irreplaceable for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Farms in many regions can’t grow crops without irrigation. Hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and other commercial establishments can’t operate without clean water. Moreover, many industries (food and chemical manufacturing and power plants) couldn’t operate without the clean water that is a component of finished products or that is used for industrial processes.

More than just pushing water through pipes into your home, drinking water systems collect source water from rivers and lakes, remove chemical and microbial pollutants, and safely distribute water to the entire community. Wastewater systems collect used water and sewage, remove contaminants, and discharge clean water back into the nation’s rivers and lakes for future use. And “wet weather investments,” such storm water systems and “green infrastructure” (like swales and rainwater impoundments) prevent various types of pollutants like sewage, heavy metals, and fertilizers from ever reaching waterways. These functions of modern engineering are miraculous in improving our quality of life and protecting us from disease…when they are kept up to date and performing as intended.

The problem we face as a nation is that the condition of many of these systems is poor, and getting worse.  We are a nation with aging and leaking drinking water pipes and inadequate sewer capacity leading to the discharge of an estimated 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage each year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated the cost of the capital investment that is required to maintain and upgrade drinking water and wastewater treatment systems across the U.S. in 2010 was $91 billion. However, only $36 billion of that was actually funded… leaving a whopping $55 million funding gap that year.  That means that more than 60% of the needed repairs or replacement to water and sewer systems did not get done!

The ASCE report notes that unless the infrastructure deficit is addressed, almost 700,000 jobs will be threatened, and the nation will have lost over $400 billion in GDP.  Left unaddressed, by 2040 1.4 million jobs will be at risk with an economic impact of almost $4 trillion.

We have to call upon both the political and business establishment to address the seriousness of this issue now.  Failure to act will mean serious economic impact, environmental and public health risk, and a decrease in longevity and quality of life.