March 2008, Vol. 20, No.3

Why It Matters

Questions on Infrastructure

Bill Bertera

The story of the nation’s water and sanitation infrastructure is well known to readers of this magazine. There is a documented funding gap between what we currently raise and what we will need during the next 10 years simply to maintain current service levels.

This is not to say that some communities have not thoughtfully and wisely planned for their infrastructure futures and provided funding for them accordingly. Still, the fact remains that in the aggregate, the nation has a long way to go to provide for the kind of sustainability and the quality of life and health we have come to expect as our norm.

A private water company executive was quoted in a recent USA Today story saying something to the effect of, “God may have made the water, but man makes the pipes.” The implications are clear.

There can be no life without air, and the same is true for water, yet we do not get a monthly or quarterly bill for clean air. In truth, of course, we do get a bill for clean air. When we heat our homes, go to the gas pump, or buy a manufactured product off the shelf, the cost of clean air is included in that price. But we do not see it. The parallel with the conundrum water and sanitation professionals face every day with respect to public awareness and expectations for clean water and safe sanitation is obvious. But there is a difference.

Historically, we have acted as though fees to pay for the pipes are, in effect, taxes — i.e., not a direct price for essential services rendered, but rather a penalty for using a product whose use is not “optional.” Is it any wonder that people resent paying for it when we have let them think for decades that clean drinking water and safe sanitation services were as God-given as the water itself?

The need to pay for these services is clear, and the implications of not investing are obvious — or are they? If it were truly obvious that communities across the country should be biting the bullet and doing whatever it takes to bridge the water and sanitation infrastructure gap, there would not be a gap in the first place. So it must be more complicated than that.

The complication is in not understanding that public health is the bedrock of any sustainable community or civilization, or that water and sanitation services are the foundation upon which everything else associated with a quality life is built. The complication lies in the perception that when compared to other elements of the social fabric, such as public safety, housing, education, and services to disadvantaged populations, these things are more important still. The complication is in the priority and the understood immediacy of the need.

We in the clean water community like to think that if only we could help people understand, the problem would go away. It is becoming clearer that it will not. Public decision-making at the local, state, and national levels is fueled by resource scarcity and mounting demands for service, and it is hard-wired to the immediate rather than the strategic need. It may be that this dynamic is impervious to change in the present context. So where do we go?

Water and sanitation infrastructure are local assets upon which a national public interest rests. That public interest is an impeccable standard of public health, clean water for all of life, and as pristine an environment as the footprint of man can allow. All else that we treasure as a civilization follows. Given this national public interest, no one has argued that the national government of possibly the most powerful and wealthiest nation on the face of the planet has no vested interest in either the outcome or the resolution of the problem.

A presidential campaign is upon us. The media are filled with stories about global warming and climate change. Droughts and floods, like fires and changing weather patterns, garner national interest. If ever there is a time when the stars are aligned for a serious consideration of our strategic future as it relates to quality of life, it is surely now, before there is a true crisis.

Water and sanitation have been generally considered, throughout most of our history and with one or two rare exceptions, matters of local obligation and responsibility. The funding gap and the growing list of federal regulatory mandates have elevated those concerns to issues of national prominence. That the gap is so large and the need so widespread geographically, regardless of individual success stories, cries out for national leadership — and maybe that means federal leadership.

Bill Bertera is executive director of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.).