The Trillion Dollar Maybe

May 29, 2018

About the author: Tim Gregorski, Editorial Director
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I recently reviewed the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, and the results were not good. The overall grade point average for America’s infrastructure resulted in a grade of “D” with the categories of “Drinking Water” and “Wastewater” reporting a resounding “D-” respectively.

I haven’t seen grades like that since my sophomore year at the University of Iowa when I took “Classical Mythology” and “19th Century Celtic Literature” back-to-back at 7:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Ouch.

Anyway, ASCE’s report is nothing to laugh at, in fact, we should be quite embarrassed as overflowing sewers and aging drinking water facilities have almost become the norm in the U.S.

According to the report, wastewater systems discharge billions of gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. surface waters each year. The EPA estimates that $390 billion is needed over the next 20 years to replace existing systems and build new facilities to meet increasing demand.

From 1995 to 2004, Congress appropriated between $1.2 billion and $1.35 billion in wastewater funding each year until 2005 when wastewater funding was cut to $1.1 billion. Despite the growing fiscal needs, Congress cut funding for wastewater management for the first time in eight years and the Bush Administration has proposed a further 33% reduction to $730 million for 2006.

Although the government has invested over $72 billion into publicly owned sewage treatment facilities since the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, many of the systems are at the end of their life span. Older systems suffer chronic stormwater overflows leading to discharge of raw sewage into surface waters.

Unless the federal assistance keeps pace with the needs and massive investments are made into the wastewater infrastructure in the upcoming years, the U.S. stands to revert back to the poor quality of water that existed prior to the Clean Water Act.

These sentiments are echoed for drinking water systems as the nation faces a shortfall of $11 billion annually to replace aging facilities while also having to comply with safe drinking water regulations. Federal funding for drinking water in 2005 remained at $850 million, which is less than 10% of the total national requirement, according to the ASCE Report Card.

Various 20-year funding estimates for drinking water in the past few years revealed that federal assistance has not kept pace with demand. Since 1997, Congress has appropriated between $700 and $850 million annually for the Safe Drinking Water Act State Revolving Loan Fund program. As noted previously, the funding level for 2005 was $850 million, less than 10% of the total national annual requirement of $11 billion.

On par with last year, the Bush Administration proposed a drinking water budget of $850 million for 2006.

At this rate, it is only a matter of time before a new figure is introduced. As estimates have shown, unless significant investments are immediately made into the wastewater and drinking water programs, funding needs over the next 20 years could reach into the trillions.

About the Author

Tim Gregorski