The Water & Sewer Infrastructure Crisis: Potential Paths Forward

By Marianne Eppig and Samantha Dawson

Our nation and its legacy cities are facing an impending infrastructure crisis: water and sewer systems are failing and require reconstruction and modernization as soon as possible. Most of these water and sewer systems were built immediately following WWII, meaning that they are approaching the end of their useful life. In some places, the infrastructure is already beginning to fail, leading to water main breaks, housing floods, sewage overflows into the environment, and public health crises.

While the national bill to upgrade this infrastructure has been estimated at around $1 trillion, costs for addressing Ohio’s existing water and sewer system deficiencies are estimated to be around $20.84 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

To meet federal clean water mandates, cities must find ways to finance these needed infrastructure overhauls in short order. So far, many cities around Ohio have been ratcheting up water and sewer rates. The city of Akron, for example, has increased rates by 71% in one year. Other cities around Ohio have raised rates between 30% to 50% or more within the last two years.

Greater Ohio Policy Center is currently looking into other financial tools that can be used to restore Ohio’s water and sewer infrastructure systems. We will be discussing these tools with a panel of experts at our upcoming 2015 Summit on June 9th during the following session:

Finding Solutions to Ohio’s Water Infrastructure Challenges

Ohio cities, large and small, must address the critical behind-the-scenes challenge of modernizing their water and sewer infrastructure to avoid potential serious public health crises and environmental degradation, and to create capacity to attract and support businesses and residents.  However, Ohio’s cities are struggling to find ways to finance the complicated infrastructure overhauls needed to address these challenges, comply with federal mandates, and even support on-going maintenance. On this panel, experts will discuss the scope of these infrastructure challenges along with innovative financing approaches and sustainable solutions necessary for Ohio’s cities to function smoothly and accommodate regrowth.

For more information about the Summit agenda and to register, click here.

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Let’s start at the beginning.

Picture by David Gallo

The first sphere on the left is quite obviously our planet.  The sphere in the middle represents all the water on our planet.  And the sphere on the right is the amount of fresh water on the planet.

Of that small dot of fresh water—which constitutes about 2% of the world’s surface water—75% of it is frozen in ice sheets and glaciers (many of which are melting into salt water).

About 20% of that fresh water is housed in the Great Lakes.

(Let’s think about the gravity of this.  One in six people globally don’t have access to clean drinking water.  Despite this, the world’s water consumption has tripled within the past 50 years.  According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 47% of the world’s population will face severe water shortages by 2030.)

Despite their seemingly goliath size, these Great Lakes are actually quite sensitive to the impacts of a variety of pollutants.

“Major stresses on the lakes include toxic and nutrient pollution, invasive species and habitat degradation. Sources of pollution include the runoff of soils and farm chemicals from agricultural lands, waste from cities, discharges from industrial areas and leachate from disposal sites. The large surface area of the lakes also makes them vulnerable to direct atmospheric pollutants that fall as rain, snow, or dust on the lake surface, or exchange as gases with the lake water. Outflows from the Great Lakes are relatively small (less than 1 percent per year) in comparison with the total volume of water. Pollutants that enter the lakes are retained in the system and become more concentrated with time.”

(For additional information, see the Great Lakes Atlas.)

Some silver lining on this cloud is that President Obama recently signed into law a new $475 million program (from the 2010 Federal budget) to restore wildlife habitat, clean up toxic pollution and address other serious threats of the Great Lakes.  This spending bill is called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The next step is to pursue policies and regulations that will help to restore the Great Lakes and prevent them from future harm.

Click on the link below to see a pdf of the Action Plan created by the EPA and several other Federal agencies for 2010-2014:

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan