Our water infrastructure is at a turning point. While there is a growing national spotlight on the need to reinvest in America’s infrastructure, there is often insufficient focus on water infrastructure.

American Rivers supports the following principles for water infrastructure funding:

Fix it first– Require that funds are directed at fixing existing problems first, and fixing them in the best way possible using state of the art technology. Federal money especially should not subsidize sprawl by funding “sewer lines to nowhere.”

Integrate traditional and green infrastructure – Funding should be directed to water infrastructure that integrates protection and restoration of natural systems as part of achieving clean water. Green practices can enhance the effectiveness of traditional infrastructure by diverting stormwater away from overburdened pipes and reducing sewer overflows. Learn more about green infrastructure.

Life cycle planning– Life cycle planning includes adequate maintenance and operations and decommissioning plans in all infrastructure investment decision-making. For clean water infrastructure this includes an asset management plan that should take into account environmental and economic sustainability. Without these requirements, we will continue to invest billions of public dollars without any assurance of a plan in place to repair, replace or remove infrastructure that has outlived its project life, exposing communities and ecosystems to great risks and expense.

Watershed approaches– Water infrastructure is not necessarily best provided by a single utility serving a single community. Service area boundaries other than traditional municipal boundaries may better follow natural watersheds and provide more efficient service. Similarly, decentralized approaches with centralized management may work in some places to best replicate the way water naturally flows over the land. Regional watershed approaches should account for all sources of pollution and depletion.

Public involvement – All clean water infrastructure decisions should include meaningful public participation, including input well before irrevocable decisions are made.

Plan for climate change impacts – While it is virtually impossible to accurately predict exactly how climate change will impact fresh water resources and infrastructure at the local level, all the credible climate science points to the fact that we can expect greater swings outside of “normal,” including more extreme droughts and storms. It is essential to provide buffers for our water resources and built infrastructure to ensure that nature and communities can better weather these extremes. Many of the smart green strategies also use less energy and materials, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Over 860 billion gallons of sewage still spills into our streams, rivers and lakes each year, and in their January 2009 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated the nation’s wastewater infrastructure their lowest grade of D-.

Continued sewage pollution is due to a failure to maintain aging pipes and wastewater treatment plants compounded by urban sprawl and increased demand resulting in frequent sewage spills and increasing stormwater pollution that threaten ecosystems and public health.  Following major federal investment in the 1970s and 1980s, reinvestment and repair has not kept pace with the need. As a result, the average American sewage pipe is 33 years old, with many pipes dating back 50 or even 100 years.

Many of these aging sewer systems are full of cracked and broken pipes. Sewage leaks out of pipes, contaminating watersheds, while stormwater and groundwater leak into pipes, overburdening sewage treatment facilities and causing discharges of untreated sewage. These problems are compounded by climate change that threatens clean water through stronger storms, droughts, and warmer water temperatures.  At this time of pending crisis, it is imperative that water infrastructure investments in the United States follow the sound principles described above.