This week, the Environmental Protection Agency released a new report titled “The Importance of Water to the U.S. Economy.” The report concludes that, as a nation, we do not currently reflect water’s true worth in the economy. A great example is the fact that communities across the country are low-balling the cost of clean, safe tap water. Simply, the rates you and I pay for water are too low. Of course, no one likes hearing that, but if we want the water to keep flowing, we are going to have to price water as the critical resource that it is.
As with any utility, the concern is that when it is undervalued, “business-as-usual” will eventually be unsustainable. In the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, ASCE gave both Drinking Water and Wastewater a “D” grade. These two grades were largely due to the fact that America’s pipes and sewers are sometimes nearly a century old. As one can see, this aging means that the need is growing while the utility itself does not bring in enough money to finance its own operation.
This topic is not new to ASCE. In our series of economic reports, titled Failure to Act, we found that if America continues down our current path, with no new investments in water infrastructure, we will lose $416 billion in GDP by 2020 due to increased costs and loss of worker productivity. Households and business would bear the burden, losing $59 billion and $147 billion respectively over that time span. By 2020, the average family budget would be squeezed by $900 as water rates rise and personal income falls. The lesson of Failure to Act is the same as we see in the EPA report: the cost of inaction is unacceptable.
EPA Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner says the main findings of their report are: 1) Water is absolutely fundamental to the U.S. economy 2) Water value and competition will rise, and 3) Decision-makers in the private and public sectors need more information.
The first two conclusions are well taken, and worth repeating; however, the final conclusion does not go far enough. There is ample information—from ASCE, from the EPA, and from other groups—that explains why water is undervalued. What the public and private sector needs is awareness. Replacing the nation’s antiquated pipes will require significant local investment, including higher water rates. Just as with fixing a leaky roof in your home, the longer we wait, the more it will cost.
The EPA’s report should serve as yet another call to action for all levels of government to invest in our water infrastructure now.