THE BLOG

America's Water Infrastructure Challenge: Moving from Proposals to Solutions

Mar 28, 2014 | Updated May 28, 2014

In downtown Bethesda - one of Washington, D.C.'s busiest suburbs - an 89-year-old water main bursts, closing a major commuter thoroughfare through rush hour. Nearby Baltimore faces 353 water main breaks in the first two months of 2014 - more than twice the number during the same period in 2013. Further north, a college in Boston must be evacuated as its main road floods with water. And in the nation's most populous city, part of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue caves in along with a crumbling cast iron pipe installed in 1877, when only 38 stars appeared on the U.S. flag.

These are just some of the recent headlines from the Eastern seaboard, reflecting this winter's dramatic and nationwide upswing in water main breaks - the result of years of neglect and inadequate maintenance that have left our water systems vulnerable to damage from subzero temperatures. Stories like these aren't just inconveniences. They disrupt local economies, threaten public health, and impact vulnerable populations like the elderly.

But water infrastructure challenges aren't limited to East Coast winters. In fact, many are surprised to learn that seven billion gallons of treated drinking water are lost nationwide through leaky pipes every single day. That's enough to meet the daily water needs of California, a state which has struggled with water shortage challenges. Just two months ago, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency as severe drought conditions spread - and this wasn't the first time state leadership feared its residents would run out of water.

These types of situations underscore that water issues are inherently local, with challenges that vary dramatically from region to region - and even community to community. Therefore, it's critical that conversations about water, as well as the solutions to those challenges, are driven locally. It's encouraging that those local conversations are now taking root across the country.

In 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council spearheaded development of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which works to identify innovative financing strategies for the city by attracting private investors. In November 2013, Texas voters recently approved the creation of a $2 billion Water Infrastructure Fund to provide financial assistance for the planning, design and construction of state and regional water plan projects. And in nearby New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez recently signed a spending measure earmarking $89 million for state water infrastructure projects.

However, bringing solutions like these to scale - particularly those that require leveraging private capital and investing in successful public-private partnerships - requires more than just successful legislation. Ensuring the success of initiatives like these depends on widespread acceptance by every individual, family, and business that securing safe, reliable water service for future generations isn't "someone else's" concern; rather, it's a shared responsibility. And in that regard, we still have work to do.

For example, the Chicago Infrastructure Trust has struggled to find its footing since 2012 and is only now embarking on its first project. The $2 billion Texas Water Infrastructure Fund only begins to meet the great infrastructure needs in that state, which the EPA estimates will exceed $45 billion over the next twenty years. Likewise, New Mexico's $89 million investment addresses less than 10% of the state's need over the next two decades - needs that simply cannot be met solely by increasingly strained public budgets.

Clearly, there's much more work to be done - and no one solution will fit every community's needs. For the past two years, President Obama has referred to our nation's crumbling infrastructure in his State of the Union addresses. In this year's speech, he called for a "year of action."

It will take all of us, working together, to answer this challenge and move from proposals to solutions.