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Paying America's Water Bill

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As we dive headfirst into Spring and commemorate our appreciation for the earth and its natural resources through events like World Water Day, Earth Day and the upcoming Water Appreciation Month (May), it is nice to see the media coming along for the ride, too, particularly as it relates to water. National Geographic dedicated its entire April issue to the topic of water and The New York Times (NYT) continues its assessment of the nation's water quality, water infrastructure and related regulatory systems. Earlier this week, the editors of the NYT posed this important question about our water systems to a number of guest contributors: "How can the nation begin to address the prevalent risks, given the overwhelming financial costs?"

The respondents all made good points about some possible solutions to addressing the country's water issues, including the application of advanced technologies, an increase in government funding of our current and future systems, and the possibility that ratepayers (you and I) should be willing to pay more. As Alex Matthiessen appropriately says, "we pay relatively little for something we cannot live without." A very good point.

But one significant solution to the mounting water issues in this country was notably absent: private investment. According to Standard & Poor's, $180 billion in new money is available for infrastructure investment. Private investment can produce tens of thousands of American jobs while addressing needs we can't afford as consumers and as a nation can't afford to wait for the government to fix. Private water service providers already work with communities across the country, supplying nearly one in four Americans with their water and/or wastewater services. There is a significant opportunity in a private or a public-private partnership model to address the major shortcomings of our current water systems without the hesitations that permeate some of the other suggested solutions.

No matter what approach you advocate, though, there is one thing we all agree on - the United States' water systems are in need of attention and in need of it now. According to the U.S. General Accountability Office (Physical Infrastructure: Challenges and Investment Options for the Nation's Infrastructure, May 2008), "water infrastructure needs across the country are estimated to range from $485 billion to nearly $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years." That's somewhere between $24 and $60 billion annually in order to shore up and replenish our systems to essentially break even - bringing our systems up to code, and meeting the regulatory requirements currently in place. This will require the beneficiaries to pay significantly more for the good quality water service they want and that the community needs to thrive.

The truest answer is probably some combination of all of the recommendations made in the commentary and those I raise here. As another of the contributors, Jeanne VanBriesen, said, "Public water works in American cities and towns are a marvel, but they didn't just happen. They are the result of significant investments our parents and grandparents made in state-of-the-art technology - well state of the art in 1900 or 1950... We wouldn't use the same kind of phones or cars our grandparents had all those years ago" and, I paraphrase, we shouldn't rely on the same systems they used for water delivery either.

Continuing to rely only on the government to address infrastructure that has needed attention for years is the modern day equivalent of dialing "0" on our rotary phones and asking the operator to connect us to the local grocer. Ask any community that has experienced a water main break or had to boil their tap water before drinking it if we should wait for government money to become available to address this national issue with direct local and even individual significance, or do it now with funds that are available and with partners who are experienced and able. The answer is obvious.

The government and private sector working together to address public health and safety through the development and rehabilitation of a robust water infrastructure system can meet the growing demands for this critical resource. Let's put everything on the table and work together to fix this leaking system.

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