Let’s start with water. I personally am mostly made up of water, so it’s an important topic for me.
One problem here in 2010 is that most of our drinking water in America comes to us through really, really old pipes and mains. America’s towns, cities, counties, states and federal government have been thinking about and worrying about fixing these for decades.
But we haven’t done it yet.
It’s the old accounting trick of deferred maintenance. Are the water mains going to crumble into dust this year? Maybe, but probably not quite yet. So this year we can win votes with lower taxes by kicking the can down the road.
Deferring maintenance is a neat trick because people who enjoy fretting about deficits don’t count this kind of deficit against you. They actually applaud this kind of shell game, calling it “discipline” and “responsibility” even though it’s really the opposite of those.
Repeat that same accounting trick year after year and you eventually wind up where we are now. The Environmental Protection Agency offers some numbers to summarize:
There are 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States
The number of breaks increases substantially near the end of the system’s service life. Large utility breaks in the Midwest increased from 250 per year to 2,200 per year during a 19-year period. In 2003, Baltimore, Maryland, reported 1,190 water main breaks—that’s more than three per day.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that water lost from water distribution systems is 1.7 trillion gallons per year at a national cost of $2.6 billion per year.
If spending for capital investment and operations and maintenance remain at current levels, the potential gap in funding for 2000–2019 would be approximately $263 billion for our drinking water infrastructure.
That $263 billion funding gap for America’s drinking water infrastructure does not appear anywhere in the Deficit Nightmare stories repeated by the supposed deficit hawks. Nor does that $2.6 billion a year of wasted water appear anywhere on their balance sheet. Nor does the recklessness of the annual gamble of kicking this can down the road yet again — resulting, inevitably, in the Baltimore scenario described above, which winds up costing far more than is “saved” by deferring/neglecting maintenance in the years leading up to the breakdown.
The deficit hawks don’t count these costs in part because they are borne by many different state, county and municipal governments. And in part they don’t count them because most self-proclaimed “fiscal conservatives” aren’t half as worried about balancing budgets as they are about shrinking budgets.
When your goal is to shrink budgets — “Smaller, Not Better” is their mantra for government — then you do everything you can to portray government at every level as illegitimate. Competent, good government undermines that portrayal. So does any reminder that government at every level is involved in desperately needed, vital services, such as providing safe, clean, affordable drinking water to citizens who are all more than half water themselves and who all need to replace nearly a gallon of the stuff every day.
The Recovery Act passed in 2009 included $6 billion for water infrastructure. That’s money well spent. That’s money well invested — reducing the cost of water waste and preventing the potentially very large cost of future Baltimore-style breakdowns.
But a year and a half after the Recovery Act was passed, the unemployment rate remains above 9 percent. And we’ve still got another $257 billion or so in deferred maintenance on our national water infrastructure.
That’s a fine example of what Wendell Berry calls “a solution neatly divided into two problems.”
The New York Times’ Michael Cooper reported last year (see “Aging of Water Mains Is Becoming Hard to Ignore“) on the increasing urgency to attend to that deferred maintenance on and investment in our water infrastructure:
There is plenty of competition for the federal drinking water money. When the state of Ohio asked for suggestions on spending its stimulus money, mayors and city managers put in some 1,400 requests for drinking water projects costing a total of $3 billion, said Melissa Fazekas, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Many of those requests sound like pleas. Village managers complained of losing a quarter, or even half of their drinking water to leaky pipes. One official said that his village’s aging pipes had burst or sprung leaks 20 times since November. Others lamented that water main breaks regularly forced them to order their residents to boil their water in order to avoid any contamination.
For $3 billion, the mayors and city managers of Ohio could create a slew of jobs while building and rebuilding a vital, necessary piece of the nation’s framework and ensuring future savings for cities and residents alike. I’m sure the mayors and city managers elsewhere in the country could come up with a similar list of desperately needed projects that would also create desperately needed jobs.
This is not rocket science. We need jobs. We need water infrastructure. Spending on water infrastructure creates both. Fixing our leaky water mains can help to fix our leaky budgets, getting the revenue and the water flowing again.
(To many people, that last paragraph will read like the old Far Side cartoon about “what your dog hears.” To them it will sound like: “Blah blah blah SPENDING blah blah blah.” And that word “spending” will cause them to recoil in horror and to have to go lie down until the vapors have passed. I’m sure many of them are legitimately, sincerely worried about deficits. Yet somehow they’ve never quite worried enough to have thought about or read about or asked about the effect of unemployment on those deficits. Until they take the subject that seriously, I’m not inclined to take their thoughts on the subject that seriously either.)