Last week, the headline in the morning newspaper and on-line news outlets report the most recent suggestions from the House of Representatives to cut the federal budget deficit involves major cuts to domestic programs. No surprise there. Among those that are proposed to be cut significantly is infrastructure investments. Infrastructure is what allows our country to thrive. Without water, sewer, roads, airports, ports, etc, the economy could not be as robust as it has been, and will not achieve its greatest output. The fact that our elected leaders don’t see infrastructure investment as a high priority is problematic. More problematic is that this appears to be an ongoing position of some in Congress, meaning there is likely more of this view at other levels of government. But it ignores that facts. This country has always grown after investments in infrastructure, not before. The federal government has been involved in infrastructure since the beginning of the country, and actually accelerated its involvement after WWII, including water and wastewater upgrades starting immediately after WWII. The monies to improve water and sewer systems increased after the passage of the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts. Recall that President Nixon, a conservative republican, sponsored the new federalism concept that greatly expanded the amount of federal block grants to local governments. In part this was due to the perceived need to help local governments catch up with improvements needed in connection with new federal rules, like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water act. The high point in federal aid for infrastructure.
The trend was reversed in mid-1980s, when most of the grant programs were converted to loan programs, with the idea that the federal government would wean the utility industry off federal entitlements within 30 years. The current concern over budget deficits and taxes further weakens the prospects of large scale federal flow –throughs to assist local governments with infrastructure upgrades, water and sewer included. Given that the current water and sewer needs exceed over $1 billion in the next 30 years, and current funding levels are expected to derive half that amount, the infrastructure needs gaps will continue to widen, with potentially more common failures in piping systems, and impacts to local economies. It is a viscous circle that needs to end, and one that can only have negative long-term effects for us. In part the issue is political will, but also the failure of non-elected executives to fully grasp the issue, and adopting the way of the wolverine – to fight and scrap, climb, scramble and investigate new means to defend what is their’s. The analogy is that utility personnel, and the upper management they report to, need to take “ownership” of their utilities infrastructure, and urge the decision-makers to do the same. We need to defend our infrastructure, and we have the means to do it. The time may be right to push this issue locally. The economy is looking up. Property values are starting to climb, and commercial activity is slowly creeping back. The result will be more tax money available to general funds, many of which have been living large off the utility system. Seems like this would be a good time to reverse that trend.
The failure to do so creates difficulties, not unlike those faced by wolverines today. The wolverine suffers from effects placed on it by others. There are only 500-1000 in the United States as opposed to the many that were here before hunting, farming and other development. A second “way of the wolverine” is decline because they cannot fix the problems caused by others. Unlike the wolverine, we have the power to prevent our decline. We need to do so.