A report Public Sector Consultants conducted on Michigan’s Water Infrastructure Investment Needs opens with…
“The infrastructure that provides clean water is one of the most fundamental underpinnings of urban society. Yet, the systems that provide safe drinking water and treat and manage wastewater and stormwater largely operate out of sight and out of mind, only garnering the public’s attention in times of crisis.”
That report was published in 2016.
Now, five years later, it is more imperative than ever that our state’s aging infrastructure problems get the attention they so desperately need. In that report, we estimated that Michigan is underinvesting in its drinking water infrastructure by anywhere from $284 to $563 million each year. Raising money to pay for water infrastructure repairs at the local level requires hiking up rates or using bonds. The former adds undue — and sometimes unbearable — stress on household incomes and the latter puts communities into debt. Neither have proven to be viable solutions.
The federal government’s investment in water infrastructure has decreased from 31% in 1977 to a measly 4% in 2017. The tide could change with President Biden’s announcement of a $2 trillion infrastructure package that includes $111 billion for water infrastructure and recent bipartisan Congressional action that addresses water infrastructure. Combined with recent federal stimulus packages that helped water utility customers get caught up on bills and prevent shutoffs, these proposals present an alternative approach to infrastructure funding that we haven’t seen in 40 years or more.
Shortfalls in our current policies and funding mechanisms have created significant barriers to confronting this persistent problem. Operational and structural policy reforms are necessary to provide safe and affordable water services for one and all. In the coming months, PSC will be partnering with The Nature Conservancy and other water infrastructure experts to highlight investment needs in Michigan. Together, our work will arm water advocates and policymakers with a set of ready-to-implement solutions that improve Michigan’s abysmal water infrastructure network for people and communities.
believe unsafe drinking water is a problem in different types of communities throughout Michigan
are most concerned with health when it comes to the condition of water infrastructure
Purposeful water infrastructure investments are good for people
Initial results from public surveys TNC recently conducted show that 70% of respondents across the state agreed unsafe drinking water is a problem in different types of communities throughout Michigan, and nearly half (46%) said that health is their greatest concern when it comes to the condition of water infrastructure. Aging and unkept infrastructure can lead to the inability to access clean, safe and affordable water, so they’re right to be worried. Current methods of relying on loans or water and sewer rates to pay for repairs and upgrades prevent some communities from being able to make these improvements. Without federal support, local communities will be unable to guarantee affordable, safe water for their customers.
Faced with this longstanding problem, state and local governments must contend with restricted budgets, limited options and competing priorities. Utilities generally rely on customers to pay for upgrades, presenting a challenge for communities with shrinking populations or already-small communities that have fewer people to charge for water. These areas are often forced to choose between keeping up with maintenance costs or keeping water payments low for the people who live there.
Right alongside these issues, there’s also the unintended systemic problem of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities that drinking water regulations cause. Purposeful improvements to crumbling infrastructure where they are most needed would be a significant step toward removing barriers to opportunity that many People of Color and poor communities have endured for far too long.
… And good for communities
The financial challenges water utilities face because of the COVID-19 pandemic have been piled on top of constant, long-term and insufficient investment in water infrastructure. It takes billions of dollars each year to renew and replace outdated pipes, pumps, storage facilities and treatment plants that ensure clean water is delivered to homes and businesses across the country. This infrastructure also carries away and safely treats sewage and stormwater then returns treated water back to our rivers, streams and other bodies of water.
In non-emergency situations, cash-strapped water utility managers have dealt with aging water systems by finding the most economical way to perform routine maintenance and resorting to deferring upgrades for as long as possible. This chronic funding shortage is so severe that the American Society of Civil Engineers systemically failed Michigan’s water infrastructure, with our drinking water infrastructure receiving a low grade of D.
Michigan’s Water Infrastructure Report Card
Wastewater grade: C
Drinking water grade: D
Stormwater grade: D-
We need more than a trickle
Although the challenges of our water infrastructure have been less visible than other infrastructure concerns, they’re no less important. Water treatment and delivery systems provide public health protection, economic prosperity and improved quality of life. The cost of failing to invest in water infrastructure is tremendous. But if the federal government proactively invests in — and closes — the water infrastructure gap, the benefits to public health and the economy will be immense.
Elected officials and community leaders must recognize that they have an important role to play in reforming the institutions, regulations and financial policies that impede systemic change. Our history of crisis and response will likely continue, but the more we can anticipate and plan, the better the chance we’ll all have the safe, affordable water we need.