Our Water Infrastructure Deficit is the Real Crisis

Politicians nationwide are neglecting one of the most pressing challenges of our generation: an unprecedented and ever-increasing deficit. If left unchecked, it will only grow in severity and continue to saddle our children and grandchildren with its devastating effects. It is a deficit that can only be addressed with decisive action from our nation’s leaders.

I am not talking about mere fiscal shortfalls, which can easily be corrected through fair tax policies. I am referring to America’s $697 billion water infrastructure deficit. On World Water Day, we must commit our nation to fulfilling the basic promise of universal access to clean water.

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, affirming our government’s commitment to ensuring access to clean water for all Americans. But over the past four decades, Congress failed to fulfill this promise. Funding for water infrastructure peaked in 1977, but fell by 74% in real dollars by 2014. At its zenith the federal government spent $76.27 per person (in 2014 dollars) on water services. By 2014 that number was just $13.68 per person. The sustained lack of funding for water services has led to an aging infrastructure that, according to the latest EPA reports, will require $697 billion in repairs over the next twenty years. In contrast, US defense spending nearly doubled over the same time span to over $700 billion a year, including funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Trump says we can afford an additional $54 billion a year in military spending. It is time we acknowledge that a modern, safe drinking and wastewater system is at least as important to American national security as bombs and bullets.

Tragically, the State of Michigan already experienced firsthand the horror of what can happen when aging infrastructure meets the ideology of austerity. Decisions made by the state-appointed officials in Flint resulted in a public health crisis leaving tens of thousands of children exposed to dangerously high levels of lead. Many of the victims will suffer from lifelong impairments because of this exposure.

But the tragedy in Flint is not an anomaly. It is not an isolated incident that merits our thoughts and prayers but little action or accountability. Reports of lead levels in Detroit Public Schools of 100 times the allowable limit caused the Detroit Department of Health to call for lead screening for all students under the age of 6. Flint was a warning sign, a harbinger of a future with a crumbling water infrastructure, a future that looks increasingly like our present situation. Even in the halls of Congress, hundreds of offices lost access to tap water last year due to elevated levels of lead. Without federal funding, the crisis in Flint could very well become the norm across the nation. With over 11,000 community water systems utilizing 6 million lead service pipelines, the risk of another Flint is far too high.

That is why today I am reintroducing an overdue piece of legislation, “The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act,” which is co-sponsored by 18 members of Congress and supported by over 60 national and grassroots organizations.

The WATER Act will issue grants to ensure homeowners’ service lines that may contain lead are replaced. Our water infrastructure problems extend far beyond lead pipes, however. Over one million miles of piping beneath our streets and homes, a century and a half worth of cast iron, copper, and even wooden vessels, are nearing the end of their lives. The American Water Works Association warns that leaving our decaying infrastructure unchecked will result in “degrading water service, increasing water service disruptions, and increasing expenditures for emergency repairs.” A modern water system may be a challenge for many developing countries – it should not be for the wealthiest nation on the planet.

To directly address the lead found in water at public schools in Detroit and across the country, the WATER Act provides funding to public schools for testing, repairing, replacing, or installing the necessary infrastructure for drinking water. Our children should not endanger their long-term health at the water fountain between classes.

The WATER Act’s $35 billion annual expenditure will be paid for by needed changes to our corporate tax code. The act ends the income tax deferral for offshore corporate profits, a move expected to generate over $60 billion annually. The $35 billion for repairing and replacing our infrastructure will create around one million new jobs here in America—jobs that cannot be outsourced to other countries. I further included Buy America provisions to ensure that the materials used are produced right here, and have indicated that union labor must be given a priority in the construction contracts, so that jobs created by my bill will be family-supporting jobs.

The WATER Act is a win-win-win for the American people. We will no longer feel anxious as we pour our children a glass of water, wondering if it is clean and safe. We will ensure corporations pay their fair share of taxes. And we will put hundreds of thousands of Americans back to work modernizing American infrastructure. Congress should give Americans something to drink to, and pass my WATER Act without delay.

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