The Message Congress Needs to Hear As It Debates Our Water Infrastructure Needs

by Evan Isaacson

June 22, 2017

Last fall, the Senate directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to contract with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to conduct an independent study on affordability of municipal investments in water infrastructure. As someone who spent several years within the halls of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, I was honored to contribute to NAPA's research efforts by responding to a survey with suggestions for public administrators and communities struggling to meet the challenges caused by massive underinvestment in water infrastructure and the growing threats that poses to public health and water quality.

The specific questions that NAPA has been charged with answering are difficult. Over the years, EPA has developed an ever-evolving set of guidance documents with an increasing degree of complexity for state and federal regulators and the regulated community of municipal agencies and water utilities. A certain degree of complexity is inevitable in order to respond with sufficient flexibility to the myriad and unique fiscal and engineering challenges that each community faces.

Despite the complexity of EPA's framework for determining and applying affordability guidelines in practice and the severity of our nation's deteriorated water infrastructure, I would argue that NAPA should deliver a concise and straightforward message to Congress: There are no silver bullets that will resolve our water infrastructure crisis, and no corners that can be cut. Only when lawmakers reckon with the scale and importance of the issue can we begin to devise effective solutions.

For too long, we have allowed false narratives to create the illusion that simple solutions await us. Everyone who's paying attention acknowledges that our water infrastructure is in awful shape. Likewise, nobody disagrees that fixing this problem will cost a substantial amount of money. And yet, rather than working with local, state, and federal lawmakers to figure out how to raise sufficient revenues to deal with the problem, many choose to attack EPA, which seems to be the scapegoat of choice these days. Shooting the messenger never solves the problem.

Attacking EPA or federal statutes like the Clean Water Act or Safe Drinking Water Act, rather than confronting the source of the problem – a shortage of funding – is obviously counterproductive. What may be slightly less obvious, but equally counterproductive, is the status quo "solution" of trying to balance our collective water management, regulation, and infrastructure development needs on the backs of ratepayers.

Just because our water and wastewater needs have traditionally been serviced by municipal utilities, with financing provided through water bills, does not mean that we must continue to finance water differently from other essential municipal services. Experts recognize that local water utilities and governments have traditionally underinvested in water infrastructure and that the price we pay for water does not come close to reflecting its true cost. Perhaps if we also acknowledged that we can't count on local government and utility officials to raise rates when needed, we would have never gotten to the point we find ourselves at today.

One solution I posed in my survey response is a much greater diversification of funding sources. We need to look beyond water rates to state and federal funding sources and to less regressive forms of financing, such as income and property taxes and bonds that are repaid by these funds.

Moreover, to ensure that rising water rates do not further ...

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