By Stan Meiburg
This week in Chicago, thousands of water professionals met at the Water Environmental Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC) to discuss pressing issues facing America’s water sector. Maintaining America’s drinking water infrastructure has been one of the most important topics at this year’s meeting.
Cities and towns across America are facing significant drinking water infrastructure challenges. Many of the drinking water mains in Chicago are over a century old. The situation in my own city of Washington, DC is no different – half the drinking water mains in Washington were put in the ground before 1936.
This issue is personal for all of us. Few things are more important than knowing that the water that comes out of the tap is safe for our children to drink.
The good news is that our nation’s 51,000 community water systems continue to do a tremendous job of meeting that challenge. Last year, 93 percent of all community drinking water systems met all the nation’s health-based drinking water standards, all the time.
But aging drinking water infrastructure is an issue we’ll have to address to continue to provide the highest quality drinking water to the American people. The Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF) is a federal/state partnership designed to create, in each state, a perpetual source of financing for drinking water infrastructure.
Last year, the DWSRF financed nearly 900 projects, served over 40 million people, and provided nearly $2 billion in financing. In fact, one out every 8 Americans lives in a community that was served by the DWSRF last year alone.
Most of our nation’s community water systems are small—92 percent of them serve fewer than 10,000 residents. And most small systems consistently provide safe, reliable drinking water to their customers, but many face significant challenges in financing needed maintenance and upgrades. EPA is working with states and other federal agencies to provide targeted support to small systems through the DWSRF and other programs. For example, over the past two years, EPA awarded approximately $32 million to provide training and technical assistance to small public water systems.
In addition, the water treatment infrastructure we build today has to withstand not only today’s realities, but tomorrow’s uncertainties. Climate change is driving more extreme storms, floods, droughts, fires, and extreme temperatures today—and water infrastructure needs to be resilient. EPA is helping water systems become resilient to climate change with practical and easy-to-use tools from our Climate Ready Water Utilities initiative.
And earlier this year, EPA formed a new Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center to identify new and creative opportunities to support the water sector, including leveraging of private funds. The Finance Center will draw on local expertise all across the U.S. to help communities move forward with important projects in the water sector.
The states are also responding to the urgent need to support drinking water infrastructure. EPA has worked with the states to greatly increase the rate of spending under the DWSRF, achieving a 40 percent, or $500 million reduction in the amount of DWSRF unliquidated obligations in the last two years alone.
As I listened to the presentations this week, I was reminded that the American people enjoy the cleanest drinking water in the world. EPA looks forward to continuing to work with the water sector to make sure this is always the case.