Water pipes need our focus
By Paul Tonko, Commentary
Published 3:45 pm, Wednesday, December 14, 2016
We talk often about the work needed to upgrade our roads and bridges, which is a discussion that is absolutely necessary. However, all too often, we forget about the deteriorating pipes below our feet that carry the water we need to live. For years, I have said this is a problem that is out of sight, but cannot be out of mind.
In a world where we replace our phones and televisions every few years, we seem to be content relying on pipes that are older than the Rutherford B. Hayes administration. Many pipes are still made of wood! That has to change.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 700 water main breaks each day. Leaking pipes lose an estimated 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water each day. As many as 18 million Americans live in communities that violated EPA's Lead and Copper Rule in 2015. We may ignore our hidden infrastructure, but incidents are happening in every village, town and city in this country.
Every life and every job depend on a reliable source of clean water. We know safe drinking water is our most precious natural resource — which is why I introduced legislation this year to help our communities upgrade their water systems and our local schools to replace lead pipes and water fountains — but what we rarely stop to realize is that our businesses also require the same dependable supply of water.
That is what I saw when I toured local municipalities in recent years. Every city and town in the Capital Region has real needs that the federal government continues to ignore. I am not advocating for wasteful spending. I am talking about wise investment. There is a difference.
For example, recently I held an event at Yankee Distillery in Clifton Park. There, we highlighted the need for a bill I introduced this Congress, the AQUA Act, which would guarantee our small businesses the clean water they need to operate.
That is what I saw when I met with Troy Mayor Patrick Madden days before a major water main break in Lansingburgh, which cost the city several million dollars for repairs and lost revenue.
Opponents of greater federal action will tell you we simply don't have the money. I respectfully disagree. Any small business owner knows — and any elected official should know — that when you have a problem, you fix it. You fix it because it will undoubtedly become a larger problem down the road and cost even more in the future if you don't act now.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, total spending on water infrastructure by all levels of government was $108.9 billion in 2014. But only $4.3 billion came from the federal government, about 4 percent of total public investment in water infrastructure. The federal share of highway investment has been steady for four decades, often nearing 30 percent of total public investment, but water infrastructure has been in sharp decline since the 1970s.
It is clear that much more federal leadership and funding will be needed to help our budget-strapped local governments.
My plan is clear: Increase federal grants to states through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, a program that has been around since the 1990s. This increase, almost $22 billion over five years, will enable states to make more loans and grants available to the communities that need it the most.
Future catastrophes with our water infrastructure can be avoided, but it will take investment, starting by reauthorizing the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and increasing its funding levels.
We need to take today's problems seriously before they become tomorrow's disasters.
What is out of sight, just below our feet, cannot be out of mind.
Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, represents New York's 20th Congressional District.