Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Jon Freedman, head of global government affairs for SUEZ's Water Technologies & Solutions (WTS) business unit.
The past few months have been difficult for everyone. Across the U.S., people from all walks of life are worried about their health and their financial well-being, but I’ve also talked to more and more people over the last few weeks who see past the fear and the doubt.
There’s a growing feeling that this moment in history is an opportunity for significant change.
As leaders look for ways to jumpstart the economy when states begin lifting stay-at-home orders, it’s time to consider investments in sustainable, resilient infrastructure that addresses the needs of communities now, and for decades to come.
Getting beyond table stakes
If the coming years follow the playbook of nearly every economic crisis we’ve seen in the past 80 years, we should expect governments at home and around the world to engage in major infrastructure projects to spur economic activity for long-term recovery. There are many water infrastructure projects that are shovel-ready or close to it, that could encourage immediate economic activity.
Even without a stimulus, infrastructure repair in the U.S. is sorely needed. Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers grades the condition and safety of U.S. roads, bridges, water systems, dams, airports and railways. Since the 1980s, these critical assets have averaged a D+.
At this point in time, funding these projects are table stakes. Projects should be selected not only for their ability to stimulate the economy, but for their ability to reduce pollution, restore ecosystems, or address the impacts of climate change such as water scarcity.
Consider, for example, the construction of a new wastewater treatment plant in a fast-growing, water-scarce region of the country. Building an ordinary wastewater treatment plant could easily perform the first-order goal of spurring more economic activity. Some wastewater treatment plants, however, are more sustainable than others. At nearly all plants in the U.S., water is usually discharged back into local rivers, lakes or oceans after treatment. It’s used once, then sent away, a practice that is especially wasteful in water scarce areas of the U.S.
One way of cementing the sustainability of water infrastructure is the encouragement of water reuse, or water recycling. Water recycling programs fully or partially treat wastewater for other uses, such as for irrigation — creating a circular, sustainable use of resources.
Reuse projects have helped increase the supply of drinking water, build sustainable irrigation systems for agriculture and landscaping, and restore groundwater supplies. Recycled water can also be used for industrial purposes, such as cooling water, encouraging economic development in water scarce areas that might not have traditionally been able to support heavy industry, or even data centers.
There is currently a simmering debate in Congress over the next wave of stimulus. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has recently floated a $760 billion, five-year infrastructure package that sets aside up to $80 billion for water infrastructure, and $8 billion per year for wastewater plants — a five-fold increase over typical appropriations. At the same time, committees in both houses of Congress have begun work on the reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water Act that will likely include funding for water infrastructure.
But even without stimulus funding, Congress can take several important steps to encourage investments in sustainable infrastructure. For example, Congress could enact investment tax credits tailored to encourage sustainable water practices among industrial water users.
The vast majority of companies have active environment and sustainability goals, but the cost of some major upgrades combined with generally low water costs often makes it difficult for companies to recoup their investment. Targeted tax credits, which shorten the time it takes for companies to realize value on new investments in water sustainability, could also be linked to increased energy efficiency, thereby resulting in building water sustainability and resilience while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Turning crisis into opportunity
The current health crisis will end one day. What will remain in its wake is an opportunity to learn from the situation and to build resiliency for future crises.
What has this crisis taught us? We’ve learned that there are broad social benefits to making sure people have access to clean water while being asked to stay indoors. Water utilities across the country have suspended shutoffs and reconnected water service for people who had been living without. Avoiding the worst effects of the next crisis will require the development of mechanisms that protect financial and operational viability of utilities. Ensuring their resilience requires investment.
A recent poll from the Value of Water Campaign, conducted as the coronavirus crisis began to unfold in the U.S., showed widespread support for increased federal investment to rebuild the nation’s water infrastructure, with 73% of respondents supporting investment to increase resilience to climate change.
Water scarcity in communities across the globe is closely related to climate change, and we found in a separate poll that nearly 70% of Americans listed water scarcity as one of their top environmental concerns. For respondents in the Northwest and Northeast portions of the country, water scarcity was their top climate-related concern.
The current crisis has made clear that access to clean water is closely related to our ability to withstand shocks to the system. Building sustainable infrastructure should be a vision we can all get behind.
To keep up with all of our coverage on how the new coronavirus is impacting U.S. cities, visit our daily tracker.