A trillion-dollar federal infrastructure package and a chance to reform the water sector
– Warning: mixed metaphors ahead –
Observers of America’s water, sewer, and stormwater systems have known for years that the nation faces a trillion-plus-dollar bill for repairs, replacements, and upgrades. I’ve long been skeptical about the prospect of federal funding alleviating that burden in any significant way. With Congress ideologically divided and its chambers split across parties, the idea of a major infrastructure program coming out of Washington would seem unlikely on its face.
But rumblings over the past eighteen months have made me reconsider. Last spring the White House released an infrastructure plan that called for significant investments in water.*
Just before the 2018 mid-term elections, Congress passed the bipartisan America’s Water Infrastructure Act, which signaled federal priorities for the water sector but stopped short of sending tens of billions into the nation’s pipes and canals. Then last week President Trump met with House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer and apparently agreed in principle on a $1-2 trillion federal infrastructure program.†
Little is known about the dimensions of the program, beyond the eye-popping figures. What might a huge federal infrastructure package mean for the water sector?
Back to an afterthought?
Transportation is the politician’s perennial infrastructure darling, as “roads and bridges” (Rosenbrigez) offer excellent credit-claiming opportunities for politicians who like to associate themselves with gleaming, highly visible projects. President Trump has made a career of putting his name on buildings, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he’d like to put his name on some Rosenbrigez, too. Although Pelosi and Schumer’s letter on infrastructure to the White House last week mentions “broadband, water, energy, schools, [and] housing,” transportation continues to grab the headlines: Time’s glibly declared that all $2 trillion was for Rosenbridgez.
Although water, sewer, and flood control systems are arguably more vital, much of that infrastructure is literally buried. Politicians aren’t clamoring to put their names on sewage treatment plants. Creating credit-claiming opportunities for water infrastructure is an ongoing challenge. If Washington is really going to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure, water sector leaders will need to work hard to make sure their systems aren’t forsaken in favor of sexier transportation projects.
The promise & perils of fiscal federalism
Let’s assume for blogging’s sake that the water sector gets some major love (say, >$300 billion) in a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. When contemplating such a massive federal capital infusion, it’s worth considering the last time Uncle Sam poured hundreds of billions into the water sector. The 1972 Clean Water Act and 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act included grants that provided as much as 90% matches for local investments in water and sewer infrastructure. The political genius behind the CWA and SDWA was that sweeping new environmental mandates came with considerable sweeteners in the form of federally-funded jobs in construction and environmental engineering. The federal funding made the new regulations politically palatable. From a policy perspective, the idea was for the federal funding to help create systems that local governments would operate, maintain, and upgrade in perpetuity.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked that way. One of the main reasons so much of America’s water infrastructure is in trouble is that there are strong structural disincentives for local leaders to invest adequately in water systems, as I’ve observed before. Maintaining water infrastructure doesn’t offer much of a credit-claiming opportunity, and local officials worry a great deal about being blamed for rate increases. Many of the organizations that operate water systems are ill-suited to the task; the institutions that govern and regulate water infrastructure are badly fragmented and often ineffective.
Attaching some strings
A federal water infrastructure funding package that fails to address the systemic factors that got us into this mess would be a wasted opportunity. Hundreds of billions of dollars might help shore up failing systems today, but would simply kick the problem down a generation: our children and grandchildren would face a similar infrastructure crisis in 2070, and justifiably curse their forebearers.
Rather than simply firing a money cannon at local water systems, federal leaders should use a massive funding package as leverage to reform the institutions that govern, regulate, and finance water infrastructure in America. In future posts I’ll explore some of the strings that Congress might consider attaching to their water infrastructure dollars.
*President Trump has since disowned his own plan. 🙄
†Still unclear is the small matter of how to raise a couple trillion dollars. Donald, Nancy, and Chuck are supposed to meet about that soon.
Some observations about the new law & what it tells us about the politics of water infrastructure in America
The Senate recently passed the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) by a 99-1 vote; today President Trump signed it into law. AWIA is pretty slender as federal infrastructure bills go, weighing in at 332 pages and 70,000 words.
What follows are some thoughts about AWIA’s main water infrastructure provisions and what they tell us about the state of water policy and politics in America. This isn’t really a coherent essay or an exhaustive commentary; it’s a series of cursory observations on the bits that strike me as interesting.
What’s new in Title II
Titles I, III, and IV include some important provisions, but much of it is garden-variety authorizations for sundry projects and studies, along with some light regulatory housekeeping. As a careful observer of water policy, the most interesting parts to me come in Title II—Drinking Water System Improvement.
Sections 2014-2015 have received the most public attention, as they include increases in federal grants along with changes to the State Drinking Water Revolving Fund program. Those funds will help with infrastructure investment, but is really a drop in the trillion-dollar bucket of America’s water infrastructure needs. That money will make a splash ahead of the midterm elections (more on that later), but isn’t all that interesting from a policy perspective.
Here’s what I find most intriguing in Title II:
- Sec. 2001: Indian Reservation Drinking Water. Literally the first section of Title II is a marked expansion of grant programs for tribal drinking water infrastructure—$20 million annually for the next four years.
That isn’t much in the grand scheme of American infrastructure, but it’s potentially huge for some tribal systems. My research with Mellie Haider & David Switzer has found that tribal facilities lag far behind non-tribal facilities in regulatory compliance, in part because tribes weren’t eligible for the vast federal grants available in the 1970s and 1980s. Sec. 2001 is a step toward correcting that. More generally, it’s fascinating that this program is the very first thing in Title II.* Hopefully this prominent spot in the AWIA presages greater efforts to build tribal drinking water capacity.
- Sec. 2002: Intractable Water Systems. In substance, Sec. 2002 isn’t terribly exciting—it just funds a study on water systems that consistently fail to meet regulatory requirements. But this section (along with Sec. 2010, discussed below) signals that Uncle Sam is interested in doing something about perennially poor water systems. Of particular interest are the tens of thousands of small utilities that serve fewer than a thousand customers, many of which lack the financial, physical, and human capacity to operate modern drinking water systems.*
- Sec. 2006-7: School lead testing & drinking fountain replacement. Section 2006 authorizes $75 million over three years to support lead testing in school drinking water lines. Sec. 2007 provides $15 million for school drinking fountain replacement. These programs remain voluntary, however, so its effectiveness will depend on local officials participating proactively. Federalism! As with most aspects of national drinking water policy, this only works insofar as local governments make it work.
- Sec. 2010: Ownership provisions. Innocuously named “Additional Considerations for Compliance,” this section empowers state regulators to “require the owner or operator of a public water system to assess consolidation or transfer of ownership… to achieve compliance with national primary drinking water regulations.” This section is aimed at repeat violators of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and although it’s weak in substance—it doesn’t actually require consolidation or change in ownership—it signals something about the potential direction of future water regulation. More frequent consolidation, privatization, and/or public condemnation of failing water systems may be on the horizon.*
What AWIA tells us about the politics of water infrastructure
AWIA provides more evidence that water infrastructure remains an very hot issue at the moment. A 115th Congress that has been historically contentious—it might struggle to pass a resolution that puppies are cute—just passed an infrastructure law with near consensus. The timing is noteworthy, as well: AWIA arrives just in time for midterm elections. Credit-claiming opportunities abound!
Crucially, none of the funding authorized in AWIA will turn into actual water infrastructure until Congress appropriates funds for it. Conveniently for the 115th Congress, the task of appropriating money for all of that water infrastructure will fall to the 116th.
Social science and defying the choice between clean and affordable water
Warning: sports cliché coming.
Boxing is more popular as a literary metaphor than as a spectator sport these days. Still, I’m a boxing fan. The combination of athleticism, strategy, and drama of the sport are unrivaled.
Every fighter wants to win, naturally. But there’s no shame in losing a hard-fought bout to a tough opponent. When you take on great opponents, sometimes you lose—on the scorecards, by stoppage, or by knockout. Fans greatly respect unbeaten fighters, but revere those who risk a blemished record to take on the toughest challengers. Most beloved are those who suffer early knockdowns to come back and win. The one kind of loss that boxing fans can’t abide is quitting on the stool: when a fighter chooses not to continue—not because he’s injured, not because his trainer decides he can’t win, but because he lacks the will to continue.
Technical triumph, political pessimism
Last month I participated in an all-day meeting with a group of professors from across the country, all of whom work on drinking water and water quality. We were hashing out a vision for future research to advance the water sector. I was one of just two social scientists in the room; the rest were civil, chemical, and environmental engineers. It was a stimulating and productive day.
But a remark by a renowned professor emeritus from one of America’s top schools of environmental engineering startled me, and has been nagging at me ever since.
“We are facing a future where we’ll simply need to accept higher levels of pollution,” he said. The Clean Water Act’s vision of fishable-and-swimmable waters was unattainable, he argued. His pessimism was not due to the emergence of new, impossibly difficult contaminants or technological barriers. The obstacles to clean water he identified were political and economic: the country simply wouldn’t pay for solutions to pollution. I’m not sure if all his fellow engineers agreed, but more than one head nodded in agreement.
Such pessimism is ironic, coming from an environmental engineer.
One of the most astonishing things about the 1972 Clean Water Act and 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act is that, at the time Congress passed them, nobody really knew how any of it was going to work. The technology needed to achieve fishable-and-swimmable and to ensure safe drinking water nationwide simply didn’t exist at the time. Political scientist Charles Jones called this process speculative augmentation: politicians called for a cleaner environment, and entrusted the bureaucracy and the emerging field of environmental engineering to figure out how to deliver it.
Amazingly, it basically worked. The 20th century was an unprecedented period of advancement for water—it was nothing short of a triumph. Water utilities, sanitary sewers, and stormwater management saved more lives than all the world’s hospitals, and has done more to improve quality of life than any other economic policy. For all their problems, the CWA and SDWA have been pivotal in making those improvements in America. We owe much of that success to engineering research.
Environmental science and social science
The greatest water quality challenges of the 20th century were chemical, biological, and physical. Those challenges remain, and new water quality threats emerge all the time. But the most formidable obstacles ahead are social and political. We know how to handle water contaminants. We don’t know nearly as much about overcoming political barriers to water quality. That isn’t a reason to despair, it’s a reason to refocus.
Medical researchers aren’t paid to declare that diseases are incurable; water researchers shouldn’t counsel acceptance of pollution because politics are hard.
We are a prosperous and resourceful people. I refuse to choose between water quality and affordability. To do so would be to consign society’s most vulnerable and future generations to suffer because we couldn’t or wouldn’t solve institutional problems. If dysfunctional politics force such choices, then we need rigorous, hard-headed research on water politics, policy, management, and finance to overcome them. There are lots of smart and insightful social scientists working on water; we need more. We need another moment of speculative augmentation, this time with social science finding the path forward.
The clean water fight’s not over—we’ve only just started the middle rounds.
Never quit on the stool.