It is easy to take clean water for granted. Our communities enjoy the luxury of having 24/7 access to clean drinking water and reliable wastewater services. Without these services, business comes to a screeching halt. However, these gains are at risk due to aging infrastructure and more complex water quality challenges that are placing enormous burdens on municipal budgets.
Forty years ago Congress enacted the Clean Water Act and undertook the challenge of cleaning our surface waters. During the formative years of the Clean Water Act, the federal government was a full partner in this effort. It is incumbent upon Congress to once again step up and play a significant role in maintaining our essential water infrastructure to safeguard public health, maintain our quality of life and economic growth and protect the environment.
This week, we are celebrating Infrastructure Week, with a number of coalitions and organizations descending upon Congress to discuss the needs for maintenance and updates of all our infrastructure, transportation, water, wastewater and other utilities. For our sector, the water sector, we must call on our Congressional representatives to understand that local governments can no longer afford to go it alone. This week, we call for a renewal of the federal partnership to help our communities meet our clean water infrastructure challenges.
Providing these essential services does not happen automatically. It requires ongoing commitment and investments. For example, my utility, Johnson County Wastewater, which is responsible for the collection, transportation, and treatment of wastewater generated by residential, industrial, and commercial customers for a growing population of approximately 550,000, recently completed treatment upgrades at two Wastewater Treatment Facilities. These upgrades cost approximately $37 million and account for only a fraction of the investments required to continue to collect, convey and treat wastewater.
Despite a utility’s best efforts, maintenance backlogs have become inevitable due to competing priorities and limited resources. Complying with ever increasing regulatory requirements drives much of our costs. While the federal government used to play a significant role in funding water infrastructure, approximately 94% of the costs are now borne by local communities and ratepayers. And the funding needs are far outpacing available resources.
This situation is not unique to our community. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified a total water infrastructure capital investment need of $632.9 billion over the next 20 years; at current funding levels, there will be a capital funding gap of at least $224 billion nationwide unless investment increases. According the American Society of Civil Engineers, Kansas has $3.2 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.
We call upon Congress to maintain the core federal financing programs that currently exist by fully funding the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) program, which provides low-cost financing for investments in clean water infrastructure, and maintaining the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds. In addition, Congress should support the Clean Water Affordability Act, which was recently reintroduced in the House. The legislation addresses key affordability concerns that many utilities face in meeting Clean Water Act challenges – especially those relating to wet weather management.
John P. O'Neil is a NACWA Board Member and the General Manager of Johnson County Wastewater in Olathe, KS and oversees all aspects of the wastewater utility, which has 210 employees, an annual operating budget for 2015 of $53 million and an annual capital program of $66 million.