This week we conclude our review of the states that identified water topics at the top of their lists of issues most important to voters in 2015, according to the recently issued second edition of CQ Roll Call’s 50 State Project.
West Virginia – Water, sewer, and power systems were ranked in the top five issues that got the most attention in the West Virginia legislature this year. Antiquated water infrastructure in many parts of the state resulted in service disruptions and higher rates as water utilities attempted to upgrade aging systems. In recent months, the Charleston area, for example, lost water service repeatedly due to broken water mains, and businesses, schools, and government offices around the state have been forced to close as a result of infrastructure failures. A recent AP story highlighted one Charleston manufacturing business that loses between $5,000 and $15,000 a day every time water is shut off because of a water main break, and by one estimate the state needs more than $1 billion in drinking water infrastructure improvements, such as the replacement of crumbling pipes. The AP story points out that as crumbling drinking water infrastructure causes increasingly frequent water main breaks and boil water advisories, some West Virginians are now pushing for a public takeover of the region’s water system. We have written about the 2014 Elk River chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginia residents for days. That incident heightened residents’ awareness of the state’s significant water problems, raising the profile of water infrastructure problems among the state’s most pressing issues in 2015.
Washington – Washington ranked water issues fourth in its list of legislative issues capturing the most attention in 2015. In May, the Governor declared a statewide drought emergency as a result of low snowpack, low river flows and irrigation water shortages, and the Washington Department of Agriculture has warned that drought conditions could result in more than $1 billion in crop losses this year. Washington’s most recent infrastructure report card gave drinking water systems a grade of C-, and the State estimates $9.5 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years and $5.3 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs over that period. The state’s smaller water systems face particularly serious problems, since they lack the customer base and financial wherewithal to support regular maintenance and upgrades. Walla Walla is just one example of an area with aging systems in critical need of repair. The Walla Walla systems are reportedly losing 33% of their water to pipe leaks, and their unfiltered surface supply does not meet current water quality standards.
Puerto Rico – Puerto Rico listed water second among its highest priority legislative issues this year, primarily due to the major drought gripping the island, which has necessitated rationing and a system of fines for over-usage of water. Several cities faced rationing and multi-day water shutoffs after severe droughts on the island forced Governor Padilla to declare a state of emergency in May. The Governor is reported to have said that the crisis could have been avoided if only there had been enough funds to build a new reservoir and other necessary infrastructure on the Valenciano River. Several reservoirs in the Commonwealth are considered in critical condition, but funds for improvements are scarce. As Luis Davila, a lawyer and political analyst recently told the PanAm Post in a report on the drought, a lack of infrastructure investment is responsible for the rationing and system of fines. “No money has been spent on the necessary infrastructure,” he said, “because the government is broke.”