Water on the infrastructure menu

This is the third in my series of posts on the recently released White House infrastructure plan.

One of the most remarkable things about the White House plan is that water is a big part of it.

Infrastructure initiatives are hardy perennials in American politics, with good reason: they’re less ideologically loaded than other kinds of programs, they can provide immediate jobs, and they have proven long-term economic benefits. Although water is literally essential, when politicians and pundits speak of “infrastructure,” one phrase dominates the discussion:


Roads and bridges. Roads-and-bridges. Roadsandbridges. Rosenbrigez. (…and, occasionally, energy).

Listening to public pronouncements on infrastructure, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that roads and bridges were the only public infrastructure in America. The reason, I think, boils down to visibility. Water and sewer are ubiquitous facets of daily life, but the public facilities that provide these critical services are literally buried or located far away.

By contrast, transportation systems are large and visible and quite clearly public; they provide terrific symbolic credit-claiming opportunities for politicians. Water mains and sewer interceptors? Not so much. Think of how many highways and bridges are named for prominent politicians and historical figures; how many water or sewer treatment plants enjoy that kind of acclaim?

So for water wonks it was disappointing, but not surprising, when water and sewer got the runt’s share of the 2009 Stimulus bill. The $800 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act spent more than $100 billion on infrastructure, but less than $20 billion went to water-related systems—less than half of what was spent on transportation or energy.

A great hydro-awakening

Accustomed to neglect, the American water community has been a bit startled by the surge in public interest over the past two years. The Flint Water Crisis helped push the issue to the fore, but drinking water disasters in places like Milwaukee and Washington DC have come and gone over the years. These events made waves in professional water circles and drove changes in regulatory and operational practices. But they never held the national spotlight for significant time.

Something seems different this time. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders mentioned water and sewer plants in a nationally-televised debate in February 2016 (the water twitterverse fairly exploded in giddy astonishment!). Over the past two years, hardly a week has gone by without a major American news outlet running a story on drinking water and sewer issues.

The prominence of water, sewer, and flood control in the White House infrastructure plan is the latest and perhaps most encouraging sign that water is more than a passing concern this time around. Whatever the White House plan’s political fate, its emphasis on water denotes a shift in the zeitgeist.

Water leaders would do well to coalesce around core elements of a national infrastructure strategy and strike soon. Windows of opportunity for momentous public policy changes are infrequent and perilously short.

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