On October 18, 1972, I was serving aboard a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam. Clean water was the least of my worries at the time. I'm not exactly sure what I was doing on that particular day, but the rusty/trusty USS Floyd B. Parks, DD884, was steaming along the south-central coast of Vietnam providing fire support for the 22nd ARVN Division operating in the Binh Dinh Province. I was just along for the ride.
Meanwhile, back in the USA, Congress was passing the Clean Water Act. It was a time long ago and far away, when I was young and Congress worked in a bipartisan manner for the good of the country.
It's amazing to think of the vision and leadership of that period in our history. Out of the Clean Water Act grew the Construction Grants program, which in the 1970s and 80s provided more than $60 billion for the construction of publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities. People across the country were put to work building sewage treatment plants, pumping stations, and collection and interceptor sewers systems.
Now, 40 years down the road, the young men and women who were drawn into the water market by that dramatic building boom are reaching the ends of their careers – just as that same infrastructure built with Construction Grant money is coming to the end of its useful life span.
And I have to wonder: What happens now? Where is the leadership to move us into the replacement era? How will the industry fill the widening gap between needs and available funding?
The Water Quality Act of 1987 phased out the Construction Grants Program and required states to establish a State Revolving Fund (SRF) Loan Program. While the SRF is a great program it falls far short of filling the funding gap. Raising rates to cover the full cost of service is certainly part of the discussion for water infrastructure, but will it be enough?
And do we have the social and political will to spend the money?
Several ideas for funding water infrastructure have floated through Congress in the last few years, but few have made it past the committee stage, let alone advanced to a floor vote.
In a perfect world, now might be the time to consider modernizing and updating the Clean Water Act to clarify its scope and address the many issues not covered when it was originally conceived during those heady days of environmental leadership. Instead, the Clean Water Act is under attack from several quarters, and the EPA has become a dirty word to some. At the same time, it seems the water industry is ignored by a Congress that is irrevocably split between left and right, with no hope for the middle.
Looking back, in 1972 we were engaged in a foolish and unwinnable war. Forty years on, we're still fighting wars we can't win, but at least the water is a lot cleaner. I just wish our nation's leadership could regain the vision and sense of purpose that seems to have been lost along the way.