By Linda Hanifin Bonner, Ph.D, CAE
Major headlines are appearing throughout the national media about Prince Georges County Maryland residents and businesses being without water for five days while the utility repairs a major water main Newspapers and TV news anchors initially reported this issue as a “natural disaster” because of its impact on residents, health care facilities and businesses. Some are questioning (and perhaps even opining) why this situation is occurring and why haven’t public officials taken actions before now to prevent it. But at the same time, a lot of people, businesses and industry might actually live out just what it is like to be without water. Imagine turning on the spigot and nothing comes out!
I want to briefly stop here in this message to make what I believe is an important statement about this situation. All of the public officials who were involved in the decision-making process about the emergence of this critical situation and the development of an immediate action plan to address it need to be applauded and generously thanked for taking the courageous and forward thinking step and saying "we have a pending disaster before us, let’s get on top of it and lessen these impacts to all." Their immediate actions successfully prevented thousands from literally being caught unprepared to deal with the loss of water.
Let’s face the reality of the situation with a big scary "IF": if that pipeline carrying water to the thousands of homes, businesses, industry, medical and health care facilities and numerous others bursts in the middle of the night or day, there would be no time to prepare for the ensuing emergency! Plus, the residual effect of a disruption of this magnitude, in its location (and we are talking about a geyser-like eruption spewing untold amounts of valuable water for an indeterminate period of time), would have likely created a serious traffic issue, significantly impacting one of the region’s major highways. The actions taken by the WSSC and Prince Georges County officials over the past 48 hours are fine examples of crisis prevention and management at its best.
However, as we know all too well, once this problem is corrected and service restored, next comes the parade of elected officials verbalizing the “blame-game;” capturing media headlines and demanding to know why this situation was allowed to occur! So before launching into this type of lecture, folks might want to consider their own role regarding decisions about funding for water infrastructure, which is an issue that many policy officials appear to be ignoring these days. The incident occurring in Prince Georges’ County Maryland this week is a prime example of a “tip of the iceberg scenario” illustrating the numerous delays in making funding decisions to repair and replace the nation’s critical water and wastewater infrastructure. How many of these crises and/or pending situations have to occur before policy officials make our nation's water infrastructure a serious priority?
The need to address our nation’s 100-year old water infrastructure is well documented and publicized:
- The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that at least $9.4 billion worth of work on water infrastructure is needed by 2020 – and that more such incidents are on the horizon.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its 2011 Needs Survey (released in 2013), estimtes the minimum investment required for repairs at $335 billion for fresh water and $298 billion for wastewater.
- AWWA’s 2012 report, Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge, states that more than $1 trillion over the next 25 years is needed just for drinking water infrastructure, and another $1 trillion for wastewater.
Tommy Holmes, Legislative Director of the AWWA, states “it’s not only about the failing infrastructure, but the way we use water. It’s a combination of new regulations, population shifts to the West and South, as well as the simple aging of our infrastructure. Most Americans are unaware of the scope of the problem, since the water infrastructure is buried and usually out of sight — and out of mind.”
But we can do something about this issue! This very week, on Capitol Hill, policy officials are working on an important bill under the direction of Congressman Bob Gibbs of Ohio, chair of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources, to pass legislation that would create a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA). WIFIA is an innovative loan program that provides municipalities and utilities with the ability to obtain funding to repair and replace water and wastewater infrastructure systems with a minimum budget impact. Modeled after the successful transportation infrastructure finance and innovation act (TIFIA), this program offers policy officials the opportunity to obtain long-term, low-interest loans for major projects. This funding source is needed because, since the Clean Water Act authorizations ended in the late 1990’s, there are no longer major financing programs for water and wastewater infrastructure.
If Congress can approve this type of legislation for the transportation sector, why then can’t it be done for the water industry? And, if local policy officials want to make an important statement to their constituents in the aftermath of an infrastructure crisis in their own back yards, then they need to direct their messages and influence Congressional representatives to galvanize support to enact this bill. By the way, WIFIA has an additional benefit worth mentioning. Repairing the nations water infrastructure will help the our economy by providing additional jobs. A great example is the kind of work these project create is occurring now at the Blue Plains Treatment Facility.
In1996, my doctorial research published the results of the impact of the public’s anger on policies affecting the water infrastructure. This research, based on actual events occurring over an extended period and within different jurisdictions in the US, evidenced how the public’s anger directed to water quality and protecting health issues resulted in actions affecting policies. One conclusion then – which is still very relevant today – is that the public can have an immediate impact on matters with elected officials.
However, in 2013 there is little evidence that the average person cares about, or places a priority on, their water supply, quality and sanitation services – that is, until these necessities are not available (and then this priority is often short-lived). The absence of public support (and support from our elected officials) for actions to address the nation’s water infrastructure poses some very serious questions. How can we (as individuals and organizations) leverage this example of a major disruption of water supply to prioritize and apply pressure to Congress to pass this critical legislation? Isn’t it time for us to “motivate our own public anger” and send messages to our respective elected officials that we need them to take immediate action on an important piece of legislation that will help to fund the repairs and replacement of deteriorating pipelines throughout the US – before a real catastrophe occurs?
Linda Hanifin-Bonner is the Operations Manager of the Water Design-Build Council.