As 2014 is only a month away, expect water and sewer infrastructure to become a major issue in Congress. While Congress has failed to pass budgets on-time for many years, already there are discussions about the fate of federal share of SRF funds. The President has recommended reduction in SRF funds of $472 million, although there is discussion of an infrastructure fund, while the House has recommended a 70% cut to the SRF program. Clearly the House sees infrastructure funding as either unimportant (unlikely) or a local issue (more likely). Past budgets have allocated over $1.4 billion, while the states put up a 20% match to the federal share. A large cut in federal funds will reverberate through to local utilities, because many small and medium size utilities depend on SRF programs because they lack access to the bond market. In addition, a delay in the budget passage due to Congressional wrangling affects the timing of SRF funds for states and utilities, potentially delaying infrastructure investments.
This decrease in funding comes at a time when ASCE rates water and wastewater system condition as a D+ and estimates over $3 trillion in infrastructure investment will be needed by 2020. USEPA notes that the condition of water and wastewater systems have reached a rehabilitation and replacement stage and that infrastructure funding for water and sewer should be increased by over $500 billion per year versus a decrease of similar amounts or more. Case Equipment and author Dan McNichol have created a program titled “Dire Straits: the Drive to Revive America’s Ailing Infrastructure” to educate local officials and the public about the issue with deteriorating infrastructure. Keep in mind much of what has made the US a major economic force in the middle 20th century is the same infrastructure we are using today. Clearly there is technical momentum to indicate there is greater need to invest in infrastructure while the politicians move the other way. The public, caught in the middle, hears the two sides and prefers less to pay on their bills, so sides with the politicians as opposed to the data.
Local utilities need to join the fray as their ability to continue to provide high quality service. We need to educate our customers on the condition of infrastructure serving them. For example, the water main in front of my house is a 50 year old asbestos concrete pipe that has broken twice in the past 18 months. The neighborhood has suffered 5 of these breaks in the past 2 months, and the City Commission has delayed replacement of these lines for the last three years fearing reprisals from the public. Oh and the road in front of my house is caving in next to where the leak was. But little “marketing” by the City has occurred to show the public the problem. It is no surprise then that the public does not recognize the concern until service is interrupted. So far no plans to reinitiate the replacement in front of my house. The Commission is too worried about rates.
Water and sewer utilities have been run like a business in most local governments for years They are set up as enterprise funds and people pay for what they use. Just like the private sector. Where the process breaks down is when the price is limited while needs and expenses rise. Utilities are relatively fixed in their operating costs and I have yet to find a utility with a host of excess: workers. They simply do not operate in this manner. Utilities need to engage the public in the infrastructure condition discourse, show them the problems, identify the funding needs, and gain public support to operate as any enterprise would – cover your costs and insure you keep the equipment (and pipes) maintained, replacing them when they are worn out. Public health and our local economies depend on our service. Keep in mind this may become critical quickly given the House commentary. For years the federal and state governments have suggested future funding may not be forthcoming at some point and that all infrastructure funding should be local. That will be a major increase in local budgets, so if we are to raise the funds, we need to solicit ratepayer support. Now!