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Improving Water Infrastructure Could Also Help Workers

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Despite the national outrage raised in the wake of the Flint water crisis in 2016, the quality of American water infrastructure continues to decline and sets up the possibility of entire metropolitan areas facing clean water shortages in the decades to come.

A report released last year notes that states like New Mexico, California, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska will have to make significant changes to counter severe upcoming water shortage problems. Additionally, due to inequality and infrastructure decay, millions of Americans drink unsafe tap water from systems that violate health standards — in the same vein of the ongoing violations occurring in Flint.

The latest water infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers found the nation’s drinking water systems rate only a “D” grade, due in part to 6 billion gallons of treated water being lost every day. An aging water pipe infrastructure results in about 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting over two trillion gallons of treated drinking water.

Many of those pipes were laid in the early to mid‐20th century with a lifespan of 75‐100 years. With utilities averaging a pipe replacement rate of 0.5 percent per year, it will take an estimated 200 years to replace the system – nearly double the useful life of the pipes.

The nation’s reluctance to invest means that it’s allowed water systems to deteriorate until they nearly fail and invest in them only after the public decides that the status quo is unacceptable. Water systems are teetering on the edge of viability in numerous cities. Our nation’s water systems are on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation change involving costs that could reach $100 billion.

Those investments would improve public health, no doubt. But they also could also have a positive effect on the nation’s workforce. A 2018 report by the Brooking Institute shows such jobs pay 50 percent more than others largely filled by those with high school educations or less.

“Renewing the country’s infrastructure requires a sizable workforce, and improving water infrastructure offer enormous environmental and economic returns for residents in every community,” said Joseph Kane, a senior research associate and associate fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and lead author of the report.

As Congress get ready to once again consider infrastructure investment, it is important for lawmakers to consider the needs of their constituents. Safe drinking water is an issue that affects everyone.