Unified Voice Needed to Spread Water Industry Message

The mere presence of EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson accompanied by his wife at WWEMA’s 35th Washington Forum and 100th Anniversary Gala Dinner speaks volumes ...

by Tom Mills

The mere presence of EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson accompanied by his wife at WWEMA’s 35th Washington Forum and 100th Anniversary Gala Dinner speaks volumes about the credibility and influence that our Association carries in Washington – at least with the EPA and the broader environmental community. He, along with several other senior staff personnel from the Agency who contributed to our best Washington Forum yet, all carry the same message – the infrastructure gap is very big and getting bigger. Sure, governmental procrastination can continue, but this problem cannot be ignored indefinitely.

So why is it that none of the Presidential candidates are using water (I mean “water” in the holistic context) as a critical agenda issue and a means to differentiate themselves from all the rest who continue to parrot the same dire commentary about climate change? These are important issues but are far less tangible to the average American than water. Clearly, our politicians need to be educated on water issues and that same education has to cascade down to every constituent in every state, county and township.

Local politicians must have confidence in their constituents’ understanding that these critical funding gaps exist before they will attempt to do the right thing and raise prices so that they match costs for water supply and sanitation services. If politicians are to have any chance at passing on what will inevitably be significant price increases and holding on to their jobs, education is crucial. The public must be made to understand that we have essentially had a very easy ride for a very long time. While none of us want to hear that particular message, it must be delivered before any formidable action can happen.

A recent NUS Consulting Group Survey of global water infrastructure expenditures indicates that the US currently (circa 2006) spends 0.75% of GDP on water infrastructure. This is among the lowest of our peer countries around the world. At an average cost of 65.8 cents per cubic meter for water the US has, by far, the lowest cost among the 14 countries identified in this survey including Denmark, the UK, South Africa, Australia and Canada.

As a benchmark, consider that water costs in Germany are 341% greater than those in the US – and Germany is not the highest priced country in this survey! Now, is that something that Americans should feel good about? Most would likely say yes, if they didn’t understand the serious trade-off on investment that has led the country toward infrastructure starvation. On the other hand, if the average Yank realized the true condition of our underground assets, they would be much more supportive and even demanding of cost increases and reinvestment to ensure our future needs and those of our grandchildren will be met.

During WWEMA’s 99th Annual Meeting last November, we showed a video trailer for a documentary being developed by Penn State University that exposes the appalling condition of America’s water assets. The full program is nearly complete and is scheduled to air on PBS stations this coming fall, which should open millions of eyes to our infrastructure problems. I’m hopeful that this program will result in even more and broader media attention, similar to what we have seen recently with escalating public concern over the discovery of trace pharmaceuticals in our waters. A simple awareness of the issue has brought a hunger for more information, for answers, and for accountability. That level of awareness is just the first step on a long road to resolving these infrastructure problems; and we’d better get walking (a brisk jog is recommended).

Now is the time to petition our congressional representatives to support increases for the State Revolving Fund programs, to work closely with WWEMA and others to communicate the key issues throughout the federal government, and to band together as an industry and express a common plea – a unified voice that can be heard loudly above all of the climate change rhetoric and other chatter. Now is the time to make a difference.

About the author:

Tom Mills is Chairman of WWEMA and Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at Severn Trent Services, a supplier of instrumentation, filtration and disinfection technologies, headquartered in Fort Washington, PA.

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