For too long, our Nation has ignored the growing needs of our water infrastructure. We’ve chronically underinvested in upgrades, overhauls, and basic maintenance of these systems—some of which are hundreds of years old in our oldest cities. Yes, our oldest cities like New York City. It took an event like Hurricane Sandy, unfortunately, to expose just how dire the situation is in some areas of the country. And this situation requires what is neither a quick, nor inexpensive fix. According to a Nov. 29 article in the New York Times:
In the month since the storm, hundreds of millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage from crippled treatment plants have flowed into waterways in New York and New Jersey, exposing flaws in the region’s wastewater infrastructure that could take several years and billions of dollars to fix.
In New York alone, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has estimated that $1.06 billion will be needed just for repairs to treatment plants. But authorities now acknowledge that they will have to do far more.
We’ve only been able to ignore the situation for so long because everyone has access to safe, clean water every day. So it appears that the system is working fine. And because the pipes remain buried, sight unseen far beneath the ground, it’s too easy to forget that they are there and that they need attention and continued investment. Especially when money has become so tight and federal funding all but nonexistent.
For years, the clean water community has warned of a $500 billion shortfall over the next 20 years in funding for water infrastructure. But nobody’s been listening.
The Times article mentions several wastewater treatment plants affected by the storm, including Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, the fifth largest plant in the country, which had to evacuate because of floodwaters. Plants like this one and many others the article mentions—Nassau County Department of Public Works, Middlesex County Utility Authority, Rockaway Wastewater Treatment Plant—are close to sea level, leaving them particularly vulnerable to storm surges. And they were built to serve far smaller populations and before climate-induced weather events had become so severe.
The bottom line is that our Nation's rivers, lakes and streams will face irreparable harm if we fail to act now. To continue to provide clean, safe water and to protect the environment, we need to ensure greater federal investment in our water infrastructure. The situation in New York and New Jersey is unlikely be an isolated event but a harbinger of what is to come.