We Can't Afford to Wait to Fix Our Water Problem

If you lived in the Cleveland area during the 1950s and '60s, you might have witnessed the disturbing sight of a local river, the Cuyahoga, engulfed in flames. For years, the river was so contaminated by oil and other industrial pollutants that it was nearly devoid of fish, and its water caught fire regularly.

Today, thanks to the Clean Water Act, the river no longer catches fire. It's just one of many American waterways that have been saved by this landmark piece of legislation, which was signed 40 years ago this week. Over the past four decades, the Clean Water Act has made great strides in protecting us from toxic pollution generated by industrial sources. But we still have work to do.

In fact, we're now facing a water crisis that threatens us all. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are between 23,000 and 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows in this country each year, and 3.5 million Americans get sick just from swimming in polluted water.

The Clean Water Act has been incredibly effective in keeping large amounts of industrial pollution out of waterways. But now our water faces an increasingly serious threat from urban runoff and suburban sprawl, which are polluting many of our lakes and rivers so much that it's no longer safe to swim in or drink from them. One of the biggest concerns facing the Cuyahoga today is pollution from urban stormwater runoff.

And it's not just the Cuyahoga. All over America, our basic water infrastructure is crumbling. The result is that a staggering 40 percent of our lakes and rivers are too polluted to support recreational activities and aquatic life.

The good news is that we know how to fix this problem. We need to repair our water infrastructure -- particularly our stormwater management systems, which are so decayed and broken that they regularly leak sewage into our rivers and streams. And if we do this right, by maximizing green stormwater infrastructure, we can create millions of good green jobs in the process. Many communities, like the ones in this video, are already doing it.

The issue is so important that leaders from around the country are coming together in Cincinnati this week for the Urban Water Sustainability Leadership Conference, where they'll work to advance innovation in green stormwater infrastructure. That includes solutions like permeable pavement, rain gardens, constructed wetlands, and green roofs -- all of which slash runoff and pollutants, protect groundwater, and can even improve air quality. Best of all, the jobs that come with building and maintaining this kind of infrastructure tend to be local jobs that can't be shipped overseas.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that we need to invest at least $188.4 billion over the next five years just to make our water systems safe and reliable. That's a lot of money, and it translates into a lot of jobs -- roughly 2 million. In Ohio alone, fixing sewers and water systems would create an estimated 31,000 new jobs. Investments in our water infrastructure would also generate $265.6 billion in economic activity.

There couldn't be a better time than right now to take care of our water problem. We have millions of Americans desperately looking for work. Interest rates are low, which means it will cost less to make these repairs today than it will if we wait for five, 10, or 20 years.

If we hope to protect America's waterways, we need to support the EPA in enforcing Clean Water Act safeguards. One of the most important ways to do that is by investing in green stormwater infrastructure -- and we'll put millions of Americans to work in the process. But we need our leaders to act now, because when it comes to solving our water crisis, we simply can't afford to wait.