Fixing America's Crumbling Underground Water Infrastructure
America’s population is expected to grow by 100 million—a 30-percent increase—by the middle of the 21st century. This growth will put enormous strains on the nation’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, tunnels, and air-traffic control systems. Yet the transportation system is only the most visible of the infrastructure challenges we face. Out of sight, if not completely out of mind, are America’s vast underground water networks, many of which have reached a state of deterioration that exceeds that of the transportation infrastructure above ground. Over the next 20 years, upgrading the nation’s water and wastewater systems is expected to cost between $3 and $5 trillion. Building and replacing water and sewage lines alone will cost some $660 billion to $1.1 trillion over the same time period.
These projected expenditures are coming at a time when governments at all levels—federal, state, and local—are facing substantial budget shortfalls. Yet modernizing the nation’s underground water infrastructure is absolutely essential. The nation’s economic well being and public health are in no small way dependent on a reliable drinking water and wastewater sector. The task at hand is to address the problems besetting those underground networks in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible.
Inserting some market discipline into the process would go a long way toward achieving that goal. Opening up the bidding process under the principle of “may the best technology win” will immeasurably improve the quality of America’s underground water infrastructure in a cost-effective fashion. Competitive bidding can serve as an essential safeguard against the influence of politically preferred providers of government services. When government tries to pick winners and losers by mandating the use of one technology over another, it sends out an open invitation to crony capitalism, in which the well-connected gorge themselves at the public trough, at everybody else’s expense.
One option public officials do not have is to continue business as usual. According to the Water Innovations Alliance, a coalition cost-conscious water providers and experts, it will take 15 to 20 years of significant investments to stabilize and modernize the U.S. water infrastructure at a cost of $365 billion, in today’s dollars. With little prospect that the funds required to address the problem will be forthcoming in the near future, responsible public officials are going to have to look elsewhere to satisfy the public’s demand for safe and affordable water.
By doing something as simple and sensible as opening up municipal procurement processes to fair competition, the products of our most creative minds can be put to the service of ensuring Americans access to clean, reliable, and affordable water in their homes, schools, and businesses for generations to come.