Regional approaches to addressing critical water infrastructure needs vary, and those variations offer stark contrasts in needs met, and needs ignored.
New Jersey offers an example of a state legislature recognizing its key role in the battle for desperately needed funding, and taking action to confront that need. Two weeks ago Governor Chris Christie signed legislation authorizing up to $1.94 billion in state financing for projects to improve drinking water and wastewater infrastructure across the state. The funding includes $776 million to upgrade and protect facilities from storms and flooding such as what occurred during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The legislation makes available low-interest loans and no-interest financing for 280 projects throughout New Jersey through the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust.
Sandy’s 12-foot tidal surge flooded an extensive underground network of tunnels and destroyed electrical systems throughout the Newark area. Without adequate power, utilities were unable to properly treat sewage for several weeks and were forced to dump more than 800 million gallons of raw sewage into Newark Bay. The recently authorized funds will go towards new power and treatment plants, a new sea wall to protect treatment plants in future storms, new pumping stations, improved sewer overflow systems and other storm water projects.
Unfortunately, too few states are working as aggressively as New Jersey to ensure the safety and effectiveness of their water systems. Great Lakes states are an example. Mark Kirk, Republican Senator from Illinois, recently spoke out against the passive approach taken by state legislators in failing to protect the safety and cleanliness of the Great Lakes. In a recent editorial for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Senator Kirk called for significant, meaningful action to shore up water infrastructure to reduce the frequency and volume of sewage overflow in those lakes. He pointed out the estimated 24 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water that are dumped into the Great Lakes every year as a result of inadequate infrastructure causing sewage overflows, citing one day in 2015 when the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District was forced to dump 681.1 million gallons of untreated sewage and storm water into Lake Michigan.
Of course states cannot alone bear the staggering costs of meeting growing water infrastructure needs, and Senator Kirk appears to recognize that Congress must play a larger role in authorizing needed funds. He has introduced the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Act of 2015, which authorizes $300 million per year through 2020. We wish Mr. Kirk’s vision were shared by more members of Congress. Because the Great Lakes are not alone. As we have written so often before, the public health threat of contaminated water to Americans all over the country is substantial. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated, for example, that between 1.8 and 3.5 million Americans get sick each year from swimming in waters contaminated by inadequately treated sewage.
Building and upgrading water infrastructure to prevent overflows and resulting contamination requires huge investments at both the state and federal levels. States like New Jersey making those investments should be applauded, but it shouldn’t take a catastrophic storm like Sandy to prompt that kind of action; our federal government and local legislatures should be acting now to fund needed improvements, ensuring healthy and clean water for all Americans.