524 Billion Reasons to Invest in Water Infrastructure

A new report from the Water Research Foundation and the Water Environment Research Foundation shows that 30 of the largest public water utilities plan to spend an aggregate total of $23 billion per year over the next 10 years. In return, they will generate $52 billion in economic output per year. Further, the water sector will support some 289,000 permanent jobs.


Investing in water infrastructure is not only good for strengthening the systems that collect, treat, and distribute water, it also has a potentially profound impact on our nation's economy. That's the underlying message of a new report from the Water Research Foundation and the Water Environment Research Foundation, "National Economic and Labor Impacts of the Water Utility Sector," released in September.

The AECOM-led study surveyed 30 of the largest public water utilities to understand how their planned operating and capital investments over the next decade will contribute -- both directly and indirectly -- to the U.S. economy and job market.

The study found that the 30 utilities plan to spend an aggregate total of $23 billion per year over the next ten years. In return, these utilities will generate $52 billion in economic output per year -- for a total of $524 billion by 2023. Further, the water sector will support some 289,000 permanent jobs.

Compared to prior economic impact studies, the report found that the job impact of investing in water infrastructure is similar to that of clean energy, transportation, and healthcare. This is a powerful message -- and one that water industry leaders are eager to share.

Shortly after the report was released, water sector leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., to rally support for investing in water infrastructure.

"From agriculture to manufacturing to transportation, America's economy runs on water," said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. "Whether it's brewing a San Diego craft beer or providing electricity for millions in New York, our cities depend on reliable water infrastructure -- and we need to invest now so that when it comes to our future, the glass is half full."

Generally speaking, I think it's fair to say that the need to invest in water infrastructure is well recognized. The challenge, of course, is justifying the cost and it's a discussion that many water utilities are loathe to have with their customers.

During the U.S. Water Alliance's One Water Leadership Summit in Kansas City in September, a panel of water utility leaders -- both public and private -- assembled to discuss the WRF/WERF report.

"The numbers are so unbelievably large when we talk about infrastructure investment," said Julius Ciaccia, Executive Director, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. But when it comes to funding, he suggested, much of the onus is on public officials, who need to "have the guts" to raise rates.

Rate increases are an unpleasant yet fundamental component of investing in water infrastructure. But compared to other utilities, water rates are typically far less. In Cleveland, Ciaccia pointed out, "we've been raising rates every year since 1990 and we're still not competitive [with gas and electric]." In fact, it will take another 10 to 15 years to catch up. "Are we less important? I don't think so."

Perhaps by illustrating the very tangible benefits of investing in water infrastructure, this report will provide the perspective the public needs to stand up and say, "We don't think so either."

Editor's Note: A recording of the panel discussion "Water Works: Investing Together for a Stronger America" is available on demand at waterworld.com/webcasts. And for more information on the WEF/WERF report, "National Economic and Labor Impacts of the Water Utility Sector," visit waterrf.org.

Angela Godwin
Chief Editor, WaterWorld

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