When the White House wanted to make sure the water industry would be represented at its Infrastructure Summit, MCWRS Board Member Joshua Schimmel was invited to the table. Schimmel, Executive Director of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, and Chris Cignoli, Springfield Department of Public Works Director, joined a group of bipartisan governors, mayors, and other local officials for a series of working sessions with cabinet secretaries in June, The Republican reported.
The summit, held a few weeks after President Trump released his infrastructure plan, aimed to brainstorm ways the federal government can remove or mitigate regulatory and permitting barriers to completing infrastructure projects. The dire condition of the nation’s infrastructure has been well documented and will require many billions of dollars just to catch up on backlogs. The participants discussed ideas for streamlining onerous permitting processes and accelerating project schedules. Firm deadlines on review periods, for example, would eliminate the open-ended nature for some permits. Shorter timelines mean less money spent and increased productivity, two key advantages for local utilities and municipalities.
Other strategies include creating more funding opportunities for infrastructure projects, perhaps in the form of federal support with matching funds from state and local governments.
Schimmel said his invitation to the summit demonstrates that “there is a commitment to infrastructure investment and reduction in the regulatory and permitting burden to utilities and municipalities.”
A separate water infrastructure breakout session was scheduled but ultimately combined with other categories. “Although there seems to be more of a focus on highways and bridges,” Schimmel added, “there has been an open dialogue with water and sewer advocacy groups to increase awareness within the administration.” President Trump’s remarks to attendees specifically call out “new locks and dams, new pipes for our water,” as examples of infrastructure investments his administration will prioritize. Those pipes for our water are underground and often forgotten, so the awareness of the need at the highest levels is critical.
MCWRS is grateful to Director Schimmel for taking time to travel to Washington to represent water and sewer infrastructure at the national level, and for pushing for the protection of municipalities’ interests and fiscal responsibility in maintaining and updating water infrastructure.
The news story of Flint, Michigan’s lead contamination spotlights a number of issues that impact MCWRS members and municipalities across the nation. The facts behind the Flint situation are hard to come by. What is clear, however, is that a failure by one water utility to meet its obligations to provide safe drinking water to its customers can taint the entire water supply profession. The media activity surrounding Flint has muddied the waters for us all and raises the specter that water supply professionals cannot be trusted and that public officials put cost savings above public health.
Certainly, Flint officials did a disservice to their water customers by not explaining what was going on. It appears they have a corrosion control problem that was not addressed when they decided to switch to a different water source. Without a doubt, there are also water infrastructure issues in Flint, namely lead services that need to be more appropriately dealt with. These same issues potentially impact water utilities across the nation. But, let’s rise above the current fray in Flint and always remember how costs affect communities’ abilities to keep pace with the demands of new regulations, let alone ongoing maintenance.
As the New York Times reported, “the country has invested far too little in its public works, as governments at all levels have become obsessed with cutting spending.” While the call for more federal and state financial assistance is proper and necessary, the demand for more regulation is exactly the opposite of what is needed. One of the reasons that municipalities are looking to cut costs is the enormous and never-ending regulatory burden. Some regulations and permit conditions are necessary to protect public health or to make meaningful environmental improvements. But today, far too many produce little or no benefit and create costs that are astronomical. In 2012, the MA Water Infrastructure Finance Commission’s report identified a $21.4 billion funding gap over the next 20 years for water and wastewater systems, as cited in this interesting Boston Globe opinion piece.
Should a community spend $120 million on wastewater treatment plant upgrades in order to reduce its phosphorus level from 0.2 mg/l to 0.1 mg/l when the result of the investment is not certain to make appreciable environmental improvements? Or, should it spend an equivalent sum replacing old sewer and water pipes whose imminent failure may cause environmental or public health catastrophes? That is the dilemma facing communities because they do not and will not have the resources to do both!
The Coalition urges federal and state governments to heed the lessons of Flint and provide more funding for water infrastructure to communities and their ratepayers and to restructure regulations and permits so that local resources can be expended on the most critical local priorities. What are your thoughts on lead contamination in Flint? Let us know what you think by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
August is the driest month of the year in Massachusetts, but what has been prominent in the news? Water. And that’s a good thing.
With the transportation funding-dominated state budget finalized in late July, lawmakers are turning their attention to what many have been saying is another one of the state’s biggest needs – dedicating more resources to repair the state’s old and inefficient water infrastructure.
Senator James Eldridge of Acton has been one of the leading voices in the legislature. He told State House News Service this week that he is working on a legislative package that would propose a separate fund for providing cities and towns grants for water infrastructure projects, especially innovative ones. That was one of the recommendations in a 2012 report of the state’s Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, which was charged with developing a comprehensive, long-range water infrastructure finance plan for the Commonwealth and its municipalities.
Eldridge spelled out the water infrastructure crisis in a newspaper op-ed column this week written with State Rep. Carolyn Dykema of Holliston, his co-chair on the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission.
“Water infrastructure is crucial to our public health, quality of life issues and economy and it’s significant that Senate President Therese Murray highlighted water infrastructure as a priority this legislative session,” the legislators wrote. “It’s up to all of us . . . to work together to protect our state’s water supply and water resources for future generations. The quality of life of our residents and economic prosperity depend on it.”
Water infrastructure is as critical to economic development as transportation infrastructure. Communities that cannot provide adequate water supplies and wastewater treatment, at reasonable costs, will be at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to economic development. Adequate water infrastructure also meets what we now consider to be basic human needs – clean water to drink and sanitary waste treatment to protect public health. We’ve heard some great news lately. Governor Patrick expanded his reference to infrastructure to include public infrastructure other than transportation and schools. And, Senate President Therese Murray specifically acknowledged the need to address drinking water and wastewater reform, noting that the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission concluded that the Commonwealth is facing a gap of approximately $10.2 billion in funding for drinking water and $11.2 billion in funding for wastewater over the next twenty years. Without funding assistance from the state and federal governments, publicly owned drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities cannot catch up on maintenance and capital investment back logs, let alone keep up with regulatory requirements. Tell us your ideas on how we can address the funding gaps?
The recent water main break in Worcester highlights the importance of our underground infrastructure. It is vitally important, but hidden from sight and often forgotten. Water mains bring clean water to your homes, businesses, schools, restaurants, and many other places you, your family and friends use daily. They provide for a basic need and are as important as highways, bridges and schools to our communities and economy. So why don’t they receive the same amount of attention as these other critical pieces of the fabric of our communities? And why isn’t the backlog of tens of billions of dollars in maintenance and upgrades of water systems being addressed with the same sense of urgency as is currently the case with highways, bridges and schools? Some people attribute this failure to lack of money and too many competing demands on scarce community resources. Maybe it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” issue or people just don’t think it’s important. That is, until an event like Worcester’s water main break impacts the daily routine of a major city’s population, as well as business and hospital operations. Even though the break was not caused by lack of maintenance, it did shine the light of day on these hidden pipes.
On the afternoon of Monday, November 12, a huge 30-inch water main broke at Chandler and May Streets in Worcester. It immediately flooded parts of the Worcester State University campus with some 10 million gallons of water and officials had to shut off the water supply to the entire city to bring the break under control. It took more than a half day before the water main was repaired but the city was still left with discolored water, low water pressure, and a precautionary boil water advisory for two days. This is unfortunate because we expect clean water when we turn on a faucet to fill a glass and we expect the toilet will flush. We should be able to rely on our communities’ infrastructure whenever we need it.
Water main breaks are inevitable and while they cannot be completely avoided there are measures that can be taken to reduce their likelihood and lessen their impact, while benefiting the environment, economy and society:
There needs to be significant, continuous investment in our water infrastructure. These capital expenditures need to be prioritized and based on an assessment of water system conditions, an understanding of current and future community water needs and identification of where systems are most vulnerable.
Communities also need to take the lead in establishing fair and reasonable rates through which to pay for infrastructure improvement, while keeping water costs affordable. This may require grants from federal and state agencies. These agencies can also help by taking a break from issuing new, costly environmental regulations to further control communities.
What we really need are 20 to 30 years of uninterrupted focus on replacing, repairing and modernizing our critical water systems without the added burden of dealing with new, costly and ever-changing environmental rules.
A reliable water system is a key ingredient to spurring economic development, providing for public safety and protecting public health. Communities, municipal officials, and people like you must advocate for clean, reliable water systems. Speak up and contact your elected officials and urge them to help your community by providing more funding for critical infrastructure upgrades and by limiting the creation of more new, costly regulations that provide little benefit to people or the environment. In the end it’s your money being spent and you should demand it be spent wisely. Let’s all work together to get the most from our hard-earned dollar by investing in our public water systems.