Lake Mead hits historically low level as US drought continues.

While we are still learning the human cost of the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, what has become abundantly clear is that the toxic condition of the drinking water pipes in that city is by no means an isolated – nor particularly new or unforeseen – problem. In my capacity as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the 1990s, I traveled to over 200 American cities in all 50 states. One of the most consistent and distressing problems I saw first-hand was the inadequacy of water infrastructure throughout the country.

We are living through something of a renaissance for American cities, especially on the coasts. Old, industrial areas are being converted to residential and people are moving into neighborhoods that have long been abandoned. This trend, along with the general migration into urban areas, means the continued health of cities will depend upon dealing with the problem of obsolete water systems, some of which were built in the 1800s.

As streets are dug up for construction projects and new housing, many cities are finding wooden water pipes laid down a century and a half ago. In New York City, for instance, over 8 million citizens rely on drinking water delivered primarily by two tunnels, one of which was completed in 1917 and the other in 1936.

As Flint has taught us, neglecting our water infrastructure can present real and immediate danger. According to the American Water Works Association, there are 6 million lead lines in American water systems today. Approximately 7 percent of homes connected to community water systems have a lead service line and up to 22 million Americans are served by lead lines.

There are three broad questions that ought to be addressed:

  • What is the extent of the danger associated with water systems in terms of linear miles?
  • What is the cost of fixing them to ameliorate the immediate danger?
  • What are the options for solutions?

The AWWA estimate gives us some sense of the scale of the problem but it almost certainly goes deeper. Many lead water lines are particularly problematic because they are not the main arterial systems in the streets but rather the private lines that run to people’s homes, meaning there isn’t an easy way for the public sector to take on the problem.

On the second question, the AWWA estimates the cost of fixing just the immediate, present dangerous condition of lead pipes to be in the range of $30 billion nationally. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, our nation faces between $400 and $600 billion in costs over the next 20 years for safe drinking and wastewater treatment systems.

As for what our options are for solving this crisis, we as a country have not yet crossed that bridge. The principal method has long been local public bonding. But as we know, many communities are confronting revenue crises as well as tax and debt limitations, making that instrument inadequate to the task at hand.

That leaves us with few choices. I believe we are going to have to start talking very soon about a major federal initiative on the immediate emergency of lead lined pipes across the country, with a focus on the Midwestern cities and the older cities where the problems are most acute. As we watch the presidential candidates debate a number of issues – some more substantive than others – the future of our water infrastructure needs to be at the top of the list. The next administration is going to have to act upon this problem in a creative way and there is likely going to have to be a federal role in dealing with the crisis because the traditional means of local public debt structuring is not working.

There are also going to be ways to bring private sector capital to this issue. We can come up with novel approaches to financing, such as Real Estate Investment Trusts and master limited partnerships. This will be necessary not just to triage our immediate crisis but to take on the longer term question of replacing infrastructure writ large.

I hope the Flint crisis, as well as others, prompt us to recognize that we’re falling behind as a country. It’s a question of national competitiveness, of national health and well-being, of building on and seizing the opportunities to create new urban environment that are more livable, more prosperous and more equitable. Water is fundamental: It is life-giving, life-sustaining and we cannot do without it. We must find common cause to come up with new and creative ways to tackle one of the largest challenges of our time or any other.


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