America’s Urban Water Crisis, From the Eyes of San Francisco’s and Houston’s Mayors

The mayors of San Francisco and Houston recently issued a clarion call to the federal government to stop ignoring the problem of our nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.

In a piece published in Politico Magazine in September, Mayors Ed Lee, San Francisco, and Annise Parker, Houston, decry the government’s passive approach to the risk of systemic water system failure in our nation’s cities. They point out that America was built on the foundation of water and wastewater pipes and tunnels and write that “today, that foundation is crumbling right under our feet.” They cite a report of the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimating that $4.8 trillion will be needed over the next 20 years to fix our country’s water systems and maintain current water service levels. Citing the urgency of the problem in the two cities they govern, Lee and Parker write that in 2013 alone, Houston lost more than 22 billion gallons of water — 15 percent of the city’s total water supply — due to leaking pipes. That same year, there were 100 water main breaks in San Francisco. Despite this enormous cost, they say, “the federal government continues to ignore the problem. In fact, federal spending on water infrastructure is down more than 30 percent since fiscal year 2012.”

Lee and Parker make the case for the importance of water for agriculture and livestock populations, for food supplies, exports and trade, electricity and fuel generation and energy independence. As just one example, they point to equipment manufacturer GE reporting a tripling in demand for water for energy production since 1995. And they emphasize that water infrastructure investment means jobs. Lee points out that in San Francisco, for example, since 2007 the $4.6 billion investment in the region’s water system rebuild has employed 11,000 workers and counting. Lee points to a Commerce Department estimate that each of those jobs created locally creates 3.68 jobs in the national economy, and each public dollar spent yields $2.62 in economic output in other industries. These findings are consistent with those of the CWC in its economic impact study on the job creation and economic benefits that come with water and wastewater infrastructure projects. In that study, called Sudden Impact of Funding Water Infrastructure Projects, the CWC evaluated the effect of a $1 billion investment in water and/or wastewater infrastructure in terms of job creation and other economic factors, and found that every $1 billion could create approximately 27,000 jobs. For the full Sudden Impact analysis of the positive economic ripple effects of water infrastructure investment, click here.

Lee and Parker detail ways in which they and other mayors believe this massive problem can be addressed, including fully funding the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act pilot program that was established in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014. As we have discussed before on this blog, WIFIA provides low-interest loans and other credit support for water infrastructure projects. The Mayors point out that if San Francisco had access to a program like WIFIA, it would have saved $700 million for residents and ratepayers on a recent water system rebuild. Lee and Parker also recommend passing legislation to establish a National Infrastructure Bank to provide low-cost financing for infrastructure projects of regional significance, and support the creation of a program for water workforce development, training and education to ensure there is a pool of qualified professionals to meet current and future needs.

Lee and Parker have, as they write, spent time in their cities’ tunnels so they’ve seen first hand the looming problem of failing infrastructure and the need to invest in that infrastructure now. We at CWC couldn’t agree more.

To read the full article, click here.

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About Clean Water Council

The Clean Water Council (CWC) is a group of national organizations representing underground construction contractors design professionals, manufacturers and suppliers, labor unions and other committed to ensuring a high quality of life through sound environmental infrastructure. Working in concert, CWC's 39 national organizations, advocate federal legislation and policies that will promote clean water and improve the nation's failing infrastructure.​
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