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By Radhika Fox and Kevin Shafer
Federal spending for water pipelines, sewage systems, etc. is just one-eighth of what it was in the 1970s.
Stump speeches. Catchy slogans. Balloons. Confetti. Funny hats. Last week, hundreds of thousands of Americans from across the nation would have descended on Milwaukee for the Democratic National Convention. Delegates would have voted for the next Democratic presidential candidate, restaurants, and hotels would be overflowing, and streets would be abuzz with the electric energy of summer in the Great Lakes.
As with so many things these days, the coronavirus pandemic delayed, and made virtual, the Democratic National Convention that Milwaukee painstakingly planned over the last year. Like much of America, our Convention Center remains shuttered, our beloved Summerfest canceled, sports arenas are closed, and restaurants and bars are deserted.
Milwaukee is known as the Fresh Coast—set on the shores of Lake Michigan and located at the confluence of three rivers. Unfortunately, even these precious natural resources are not immune to the impacts of the pandemic. Milwaukee’s drinking water and wastewater utilities are experiencing sudden drops in revenue as economic activity precipitously declines. Water utilities know they provide an essential service, which is why Milwaukee has a moratorium on water shutoffs. Local water utilities are also incurring new, additional costs to staff critical operations during the pandemic. This isn’t unique to Milwaukee, but a national trend—in fact, water and wastewater utilities are projecting $30 billion in lost revenue by 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic is a compounding crisis on top of a long-standing water infrastructure crisis. In 2019, the gap between actual spending on water infrastructure versus the total need was $81 billion. For too long, the federal government has been an absent partner to local communities who are most impacted by failing roads, bridges, and water systems. The federal share of water infrastructure investment has shrunk to one-eighth of what it was in the 1970s, covering only 4% of total water infrastructure spending.
It’s time to renew the local-state-federal partnership on water infrastructure. We need a federal plan to ensure clean, safe drinking water in all communities—rural to urban, rich and poor—by investing in the repair of water pipelines and sewer systems, replacing lead service pipes, upgrading treatment plants, and integrating efficiency and water quality monitoring technologies. Milwaukee is leading this charge by upgrading its wastewater facilities to use renewable energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, and biogas as energy sources.
We need a federal partner that is committed to protecting our watersheds and clean water infrastructure from man-made and natural disasters by conserving and restoring wetlands and developing green infrastructure and natural solutions. This is something Milwaukee has been working on for over twenty years through the naturalization of the three rivers—replacing concrete with vegetation to form naturalized streams, while providing flood protection for residents. Milwaukee has also been restoring neighborhoods using green infrastructure to provide natural habitat, recreation, and water quality improvements and responding to climate change with a single infrastructure investment.
Lead service lines replaced by the Milwaukee Water Works with corrosion control visible in pipe. Image from Milwaukee Water Works.
We need a federal partner who is going to help cities like Milwaukee improve water quality in a comprehensive way. PFAS, a group of over 5,000 man-made chemical compounds, are associated with potential human health and ecological concerns, including cancer. These compounds have been found in all of the Great Lakes which are the source of drinking water for approximately 40 million people, and water from other surface waters and groundwater in the Great Lakes States. Milwaukee is working with the State of Wisconsin to monitor and report on PFAS in drinking water, wastewater, and other environmental metrics, providing valuable information that will help with removal of this pollutant from our environment. An important aspect of that is the education of industry, government agencies, and the public so that these pollutants don’t enter our water supply in the first place.
We also need a federal partner that is committed to utilizing infrastructure investments to address racial and environmental justice disparities. Milwaukee is a city that has long struggled with racial inequality—African Americans make half the median income of white residents, and a recent report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee showed the disproportionate spread of coronavirus among African Americans as a result of racial segregation and other factors. That’s why Milwaukee has been part of the US Water Alliance’s Water Equity Taskforce—which is focused on opening up job and contracting opportunities in the water sector to low-income people and communities of color.
While there were no lofty speeches in the Milwaukee Convention Center last week, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic Candidate, announced an ambitious plan that would tackle many of these challenges and restore the local-state-federal partnership. As we enter the general election season, we call on all candidates to do the same. From Presidential down to town council, share your plans to invest in America’s water systems, roads, bridges, schools, and broadband.
Investing in infrastructure puts people to work, helps our economy, and strengthens communities. America can do great things when we set our minds to it. Let’s get to work on rebuilding a better America—together.
Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance and Kevin Shafer, Executive Director, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.