With all the numbers talk in Washington about deficits, Obamacare, sequestration, etc., a new number popped up on the radar that we should all pay attention to. That number is $384 billion. It’s a big number. Actually, it’s a huge number!
The number is important because it represents the value of immediate improvements that are needed by the 73,000 public and private utilities that deliver clean drinking water to the people of this country every day.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency’s acting administrator, Bob Perciasepe, describes the current state of affairs as an “era of rehabilitation and replacement,” adding: “(M)uch of the existing infrastructure has reached or is approaching the end of its useful life.” Really? Absolutely! Then, how did we get to such a sad state of affairs? Good question. And, we don’t have far to look for the answer.
Case in point: For years the former city of Augusta sold water cheap and used the utility department as a profit center to subsidize other city operations. It could be argued that proceeds from the water department paid for some of the construction of the popular Riverwalk. The city did not reinvest water income back into the water department for the adequate “rehabilitation and replacement,” described by Perciasepe.
That lack of stewardship became evident during the late 1990s when the new consolidated Augusta utility system collapsed under the weight of severe drought. Equipment and distribution systems failed. As a result, homes and businesses had no water for extended periods. People had a real fear that if a fire broke out, nearby hydrants would be dry.
THE CONSOLIDATED government responded to this crisis with a nearly half-billion-dollar construction program. New and rehabbed water production facilities, upgraded wastewater treatment systems, and expanded distribution and storage were all part of the Benchmark 2010 initiative.
Augusta went from a basket case to a national model. Utility revenues now are wisely dedicated to reinvestment in the system. Restrictions written into the loan documents protect utility income from a midnight raid, was well as lock in future rate increases to keep the system financially viable.
Other systems have not responded as Augusta did. The EPA survey clearly shows that. The national estimate is important, because EPA uses that as the basis for grants to states to add to their state revolving loan funds. The funds are helpful in providing low interest loans to utilities.
However, since the loan funds were started in 1997, Congress has put in only about $1 billion a year. (Imagine a $384 bill on your credit card that you pay off at $1 a year.) Progressive utilities know they have to look elsewhere for funding, just as Augusta did. Cities that are slow to respond face a dark and expensive future. When deferred, infrastructure problems only get worse – and more expensive.
IT’S EASY TO take for granted the water that your utility delivers to your home every day. But when you pull the curtain back, there exists a maze of infrastructure and public policy that may not necessarily be in sync. Fortunately for the customers of Augusta Utilities, this new EPA assessment is not a cause for alarm, but an affirmation that our city government is on the right course.
(The writer is a former Augusta mayor and current president and CEO of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.)