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Engagement, Transparency Needed to Address Water Infrastructure Needs

By Greg Lindsey
The tragedy-travesty in Flint, Michigan that captured the nation’s attention for a brief time in 2016 illustrates, if nothing else, the tradeoffs and tensions inherent in meeting our demands for clean water. Seen in the best light, the contamination of Flint’s drinking water supply resulted from under-appreciation or disregard of available evidence, over-emphases on cost-control, and a lack of understanding of the risk and consequences of making the wrong decision. Though Flint’s problem seems to have burst on the scene, it was actually decades in the making, and, unfortunately, thousands of communities across the United States are faced with similar tradeoffs in providing the clean water residents need to lead healthy, prosperous lives.

Tradeoffs in water management are nothing new. Congress has embedded tradeoffs in both policy and administrative decision-making in the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, the two federal laws that together have guided water management in the United States for nearly 50 years. Over the years, Congress has at times, had to prioritize regulations and defer regulatory policies and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked to address the challenges communities face with compliance.

Most recently, in response to these continuing concerns, Congress directed EPA to contract with the National Academy of Public Administration to supplement earlier guidance, to consult with stakeholders about affordability, and to explore innovative solutions that may inform decisions about achieving water quality and related objectives. The Academy report is due later this year, and it could not be coming at a more auspicious time.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given the nation’s drinking water supply infrastructure a grade of D (and wastewater infrastructure a D+), and the American Water Works Association estimates that $1 trillion will be needed over the next 25 years to maintain and expand service to meet demand. Few details are known about President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, but one fact is clear: whenever it passes Congress, it will be insufficient to meet these water-related needs. Lobbyists for transportation, electric utility, and other infrastructure providers already are competing for every dollar.

The trends that led to Flint’s water crisis have been a long time in the making and won’t be reversed easily. Decades of disinvestment and decline, compounded by the Great Recession, and exacerbated by political polarization, have reduced resources and local capacity to address water-related problems. These outcomes also have eroded trust that elected officials and public servants will make the decisions that serve the public’s needs.

Perhaps the best way to move forward is to engage those people most affected in the arduous process of confronting the tradeoffs inherent in water management. This engagement may take many forms, but the failures of Flint are instructive. We must avoid political expediency and prioritizing cost control above all else. At the same time, we must embrace evidence, communicate complexity and risk, recognize the particular needs of the poor, pursue flexibility in implementation, and achieve transparency in decision- making. These aspirations may not be sufficient, but given the lessons of Flint, they certainly seem necessary.