Report Explores Impact of Water, Wastewater Investment on U.S. Economy

The report, National Economic and Labor Impacts of the Water Utility Sector, explores the economic and labor impacts of water, wastewater and stormwater projects. Released by the Water Environment Research Foundation and Water Research Foundation, it notes that 30 public water utilities are planning projects that will contribute $524 billion to the U.S. economy over the next decade and support 289,000 permanent jobs.


By Patrick Crow

Thirty public water utilities are planning projects that will contribute $524 billion to the U.S. economy over the next decade and support 289,000 permanent jobs, according to a newly-released report by the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and the Water Research Foundation (WRF).

The report, The National Economic and Labor Impacts of the Water Utility Sector, explores the economic and labor impacts of water, wastewater and stormwater projects. "It is widely accepted and sometimes taken for granted that water, wastewater and stormwater utilities significantly contribute to public health, business development and the environment," the report said. "What is not as well understood is how these same utilities support the local and national economy by providing jobs, building reliable infrastructure and supporting technological advancement with clean and reliable water systems."

The report (WRF research project #4566) stated that investments by utilities generate similar job impacts as compared to investments in clean energy, transportation and healthcare. In addition, these investments generate more jobs per $1 million than investments in military spending or personal income tax.

It also noted that the total annual employment impact of the water utility sector exceeds the total workforce of many major cities (including New Orleans, Miami and Pittsburgh), and the combined economic contribution by utilities exceeds the gross regional product of metropolitan Chattanooga and Santa Barbara.

During the coming decade, the 30 utilities will undertake projects to replace aging infrastructure, improve local water quality, expand services to accommodate increased demand, and respond to a number of additional needs. These projects will sustain more than 131,000 jobs over the next 10 years.

Further, the paper indicated that 60 percent of the projected $524 billion in spending will be for the ongoing operation of the utilities and 40 percent for capital infrastructure investments.

In addition to the significant number of jobs sustained by the water utility sector, utilities in the study anticipate major workforce replacement hiring needs, since nearly a third of their existing workforce is currently eligible for retirement. The report also noted that another WRF study projects that 37 percent of water utility workers and 31 percent of wastewater utility workers will retire over the next decade.

The current workforce replacement needs of the water industry sector exceed the nationwide average, it added. The median age of a water sector employee is 48, compared to the national median employee age of 42.

Carrie Capuco, WERF's director of communications, said that the study was proposed by some of the organization's subscribers. "They were aware that their local utilities had a large impact on their local economies and wanted to assess it," she said. Capuco also noted that some of those subscribers could use the full report as a lobbying tool.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has earmarked more than $8 million to make it easier for utilities to make operating and infrastructure improvements. It will establish two national centers for research and innovation focusing on small- to medium-sized drinking water systems.

"These centers will help to develop innovative and practical solutions for challenges faced by smaller drinking water systems, which make up the majority of public water systems in the United States," said Lek Kadeli, acting assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Research and Development. "Providing cost-effective solutions to help these systems deliver safe, high-quality drinking water will help improve the health, economy and security of our nation's communities."

Recipients of the grants are the Design of Risk Reducing, Innovative Implementable Small System Knowledge (DeRISK) center at University of Colorado–Boulder and the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems (WINSSS) center at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. They will develop and test some advanced, low-cost methods to reduce, control and eliminate groups of water contaminants that present challenges to communities worldwide.

EPA noted that these grants support the development of water clusters, which are networks of businesses, researchers and others involved in water technology. "These organizations are leading the way in developing cutting-edge technologies and bringing them to the market, where they can solve water challenges that threaten health and daily activities while promoting technological innovation and economic growth," EPA said.

About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now a Houston, Texas-based freelance writer.

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