Want Jobs? Fix America's Water Crisis

First, the bad news. America is quickly sinking into a water crisis that threatens our health, our economy, and our environment.

Our basic water infrastructure is crumbling. As a result, we're seeing a steady stream of sewage overflows and leaks that put all of us at risk of contamination from bacteria, parasites, viruses, pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, and other chemicals. According to the EPA, there are now 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. Meanwhile, a whopping 40 percent of our lakes and rivers are too polluted to support recreational activities and aquatic life. That just shouldn't be happening in a country as advanced as ours.

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. Investments in our water infrastructure would also generate an estimated $265.6 billion in economic activity.

Now, the good news. 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.

The most urgent deficit America needs to resolve right now is our job deficit. And fixing our infrastructure -- especially the systems that keep our water safe and clean -- is one of the best ways we can put people to work. One study by Cleveland State University showed that fixing sewers and water systems in that state would create at least 31,000 new jobs.

Investing in America's infrastructure creates 16 percent more jobs dollar-for-dollar than a payroll tax holiday. Infrastructure investments create 40 percent more jobs than an across-the-board tax cut, and more than five times as many jobs as temporary business tax cuts.

There's a reason we built the Golden Gate Bridge during the Great Depression. It gave our country a shot in the arm when we needed it most. And fixing our water infrastructure will do the same thing.

After all, how can we expect businesses to want to operate in this country when we can't even guarantee they won't have to deal with corroded pipes and sewage overflows?

And there are many types of jobs in water infrastructure that create pathways out of poverty -- those that don't require a high level of formal education, and union jobs with family-supporting wages.

If we're looking for a workhorse that will generate jobs and get America on its feet, this is it. But the opportunity is even bigger than that. We already know we have to fix our water systems. Now we have a chance to do it in a way that ensures that they're safer, cleaner, more efficient, and healthier for our environment.

By using green infrastructure -- including permeable pavement, rain gardens, constructed wetlands, and green roofs -- we can reduce stormwater runoff and pollutants, protect groundwater, and even improve air quality. Green infrastructure -- like planting trees to manage runoff -- naturally cools urban areas. That means fewer air conditioners running, and fewer people suffering from heat-related illness. Green infrastructure fights global warming pollution by slashing energy demand from buildings. It also makes communities more resilient in the face of climate change, by improving flood management and recharging groundwater to offset drought.

If that's not enough for you, consider this: The open space that comes with green infrastructure encourages healthy recreation and increases property values. Studies show that these kinds of spaces can even reduce violence and crime in neighborhoods while boosting a sense of community.

Many cities are already moving in this direction. Chicago, a place that's all too familiar with sewage overflows and beach closures, has embraced green infrastructure. In an effort to manage stormwater runoff and keep pollution down, the city has upgraded 100 alleyways with permeable pavement and planted roughly 400,000 trees. And Chicago's not alone. Washington, D.C., plans to create 20 million square feet of green roofs as part of a $1.9 billion investment. Philadelphia is putting $1.6 billion into its water infrastructure -- projected to create at least 15,266 green jobs. Cities all over America stand to generate tens of thousands of jobs making these much-needed improvements. There's no reason to wait to seize this opportunity. In fact, we can't afford to wait.

We have a hole in our roof. We can put a bucket under it, leaving it for our kids or grandkids to fix. Or we can fix it now, fix it right, put Americans to work, and create a healthier, greener, more prosperous economy for us all.