Why does it take a crisis or public outrage to motivate policy officials to take action on water and wastewater issues? In 2016, the water quality and compliance issues impacting the public’s health and environment – with the crisis in Flint, Michigan, serving as a prime example – should not be happening.
Ever since the Clean Water Act in the 1990s, industry organizations have begged and pleaded with congressional and senate leaders to ensure that funding mechanisms are in place for municipalities and states to address the need to upgrade treatment plants to comply with ongoing regulations. But it seems that other self-interests always take precedent when budgets are discussed.
Is the Flint crisis enough of a wake up call to galvanize our congressional leaders and policy officials into action? While I wish that were the case, I'm afraid I’m not so optimistic.
The pattern of actions and responses that has emerged in recent decades to problems such as these appear to include (a) cast blame and create headlines; (b) throw some money at the immediate problem for a quick fix; and (c) go back to business as usual and ignore the anticipated train wreck waiting for us down the line.
There is a glimmer of hope. Nearly 50 years ago, a similar crisis occurred in Cleveland, Ohio, when the Cuyahoga River caught fire due to industry pollutants – and the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., was also foul and filthy. So for the younger generation of professionals now holding the same positions many of us once held during those years, it must seem surreal to see such a situation occur when so much progress has been made toward ensuring the safety and quality of our water.
Unfortunately, this situation, along with many more yet to surface, are the result of the aging process of plants built in the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, there are more stringent regulations being enforced to ensure that safe drinking water exists, but that is compounded by a lack of financial resources available to complete the needed improvements, or even basic replacements.
Compliance and replacement has a cost – a big one. And the public gets justifiably angry when policy and utility officials attempt to raise rates, so that money is available for these purposes. If I'm being honest, I’d be pretty angry as a Flint resident if I had to pay for what's coming out of my faucet.
While using airtime to “rant” a bit about these issues gets attention, we need to harness this anger and energy to focus on the positive solutions. We should adopt a proactive approach to ensure similar incidents do not happen again in future.
The United States gives away a lot of money to foreign countries, on top of wasting a lot on needless projects taking place our own soil. The water and wastewater infrastructure is long overdue to receive the necessary funding to support cities and utilities in addressing their repair and replacement needs. Industry organizations such as the Water Design-Build Council, NACWA, AWWA and WEF have presented solutions and recommendations to address drinking water and quality issues for years on Capitol Hill and at state legislatures for years.
Now is the time for policy officials to listen more and take action.
What I'm suggesting can be done. In fact, in this week's issue of the Water Design-Build Council ENews, an example solution in action was featured. One of our member projects is focused on bringing a treatment plant in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay into compliance and protecting water quality.
Water design-build industry members are located across the United States and are willing and available to help municipal governments, utilities and states solve these important issues. It’s time that we stop being merely "reactive" to a crisis and public anger – and be more proactive in funding solutions.