Invest in water infrastructure for relief, resilience, and economic recovery - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Invest in water infrastructure for relief, resilience, and economic recovery

As cities, states, and the federal government respond to COVID-19, the reasons for committing to resilient water infrastructure have never been more clear. MPC recommends actions to provide immediate relief to users and utilities, increase our water systems’ resilience to shocks, and help our economy recover.

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Lurie Garden in Millenium Park offers one glimpse of smart green stormwater infrastructure investment. If we respond to the current crisis with foresight, we can ensure that our water infrastructure works better for everyone.

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As Capitol Hill considers another stimulus bill, the reasons for committing to resilient water infrastructure have never been more clear. Read on for three good reasons COVID-19 recovery initiatives should invest in water.

Relief for users and utilities

The first reason to invest in water now is to provide relief for water users and utilities. Water is a basic need and right. To guarantee that right, we must ensure access for all users and keep our utilities operating.

For water users (for our purposes in this blog post, that’s everyone who gets their water from a utility), relief is needed in the form of reconnection and emergency water provision. MPC recently dove deep on water affordability, and we found that as water rates increase and incomes remain essentially stagnant, the lowest income households across the Chicago region struggle to pay their water bills. When residents fall behind on their water bills, utilities sometimes disconnect service.

For disconnected water users, “shelter in place” means “go without water.” They can’t wash their hands in the middle of a public health crisis. They may be forced to buy expensive bottled water during times of panic buying and a tough economy. And they’re already some of our most vulnerable community members, often without sufficient resources to pay their water bills in the first place. People whose water has been disconnected may approach friends and neighbors to help them get access to water--and in doing so, increase everyone’s exposure to COVID-19. These are choices that people shouldn’t be forced to make.

Thankfully, as it became apparent that COVID-19 was going to drastically alter how we live for a time, many state and local agencies (including private utilities governed by the Illinois Commerce Commission and some municipal utilities) have placed moratoria on any new shutoffs occurring. But for residents whose water was shut off months ago, moratoria offer little help.

MPC is currently working with our partners on solutions to this problem. But all of these efforts to rapidly provide water requires the following kinds of funding and assistance:

  • Water service reconnection. Restoring water service safely requires training and labor.
  • Direct rate assistance to water users. State and federal rate assistance should be made available to directly pay the water bills of low-income water users.
  • Bottled water to residents in need. Water reconnection is going to take time, and people need access to drinking water now. Bottled water is a necessary stopgap. 
  • Temporary hygiene stations. Same goes for hygiene: People need a way to take care of their hygiene needs now. State and local governments should provide safe spaces for people to wash their hands and take showers. Schools and community centers can provide temporary hygiene stations. So can temporary facilities like portable shower trailers.
  • Ongoing assistance for the housing insecure. For people facing housing insecurity, water and hygiene station provision are especially imperative. People without stable housing often rely on public spaces and friends and family members to meet their needs. During the pandemic, these kinds of resources may be in even shorter supply than they normally rely on.

Utilities need relief in the form of revenue and staffing. COVID-19 has introduced some difficult financial challenges: Industrial manufacturers and large social congregations such as sporting events have all but dried up since states like Illinois have issued stay at home orders. These activities are major water users, which has created some substantial revenue declines for water utilities. Additionally, small water systems operating with lean staff may face staffing shortages, as employees fall sick and have to stay at home. There’s not much slack in our water infrastructure, and COVID-19 is pulling the rope taught.

To address these problems, MPC recommends:

  • Direct bill assistance to water users. Given the moratoria on water shutoffs, utilities may see additional declines in revenue. Providing direct bill assistance to users would allay this problem.
  • Funding assistance to utilities. It’s too early to know the effect of the pandemic on water utility revenues. State and federal governments should deploy every tool at their disposal to ensure that utilities can continue to operate safely while keeping water and sewer rates affordable for low-income residents. This includes State Revolving Fund loans and grants.
  • Protect utility workers. Any water utility work that ensures water quality and keeps water infrastructure operating should be considered essential, frontline work. Employees should be protected and compensated accordingly.

Resilience to future shocks

The immediate relief measures outlined above are necessary because of some longstanding issues faced by our water utilities and users. Simply put, governments at all levels have underfunded water infrastructure for a long time, which means that utilities are vulnerable to the kinds of shocks we’re facing now. And water users are the ones who suffer as a result.

The solution is to be better prepared for future shocks by making our water infrastructure more resilient. “Resilience” means reducing the impact of disasters and increasing our region’s ability to adapt to or bounce back from their fallout. Water infrastructure health stands out as an important and consistent indicator of how resilient a community is (see Susan Cutter’s 2016 article for an especially helpful review.)

When you think about a community such as University Park, Illinois, it’s easy to see how water infrastructure plays a critical role in reducing the effects of a disaster. In the midst of this global pandemic, University Park residents are simultaneously weathering a drinking water crisis that began nearly a year ago. When the village switched to a new water source, lead in the distribution system began leaching into the water. The community soon had a drinking water crisis on its hands. That crisis persists: right now, 1,500 households cannot drink their water without filters or other treatment measures. In the understated words of University Park’s Mayor Joseph Roudez III, layering these problems together “adds stress to an already stressful situation.” 

How do we make sure our utilities and water users are more resilient in the face of shocks like the one we’re facing? There are a couple different ways of approaching this: short-term things we can do to prepare people for what’s on the immediate horizon and longer-term resilience to future shocks.

Short-term resilience and preparation

Right now, we need to recognize that flooding season is upon us, and in the Chicago region when it starts raining, homes and rivers start getting overwhelmed. This is particularly vexing given the stay at home order. What are you supposed to do if you have four feet of water in your basement? We need to make sure that our utilities and units of government are prepared to deal with emergencies during this existing pandemic. How do you sandbag a river in a time of social distancing? Can you safely get into people’s homes to inspect mold after a flood without exposing yourself to COVID-19? We don’t have the answers to these questions right now, but MPC is working with Calumet Stormwater Collaborative partners to answer these very questions.

Long term resilience

In the longer term, we need to invest in infrastructure to reduce the strain on utilities, local governments, and residents. Action items include:

  • Green stormwater infrastructure. The use of nature-based solutions to capture and treat stormwater where it falls can lessen the burden on traditional grey (i.e., concrete) stormwater infrastructure. Municipalities are increasingly accepting green infrastructure as a tool in their stormwater management toolbox but often lack the capacity and technical expertise required for installation and, equally as important, ongoing maintenance. Financial resources are needed to ensure this infrastructure solution becomes more widespread and remains effective.
  • Lead pipe replacement. Illinois leads the nation with more than 686,000 lead pipes delivering drinking water into our homes. While our water systems deploy stopgap solutions such as anti-corrosives that reduce lead levels in drinking water, the far better and more resilient fix is to remove the source of the contamination. MPC advocates for full lead service line replacement in Illinois and across the nation.
  • Upgrade infrastructure to reduce water loss. Much of northeastern Illinois’ water infrastructure is 50 to 100 years old and in dire need of upgrades, repairs and replacement. Failure to act will result in water main breaks, collapsing infrastructure and drinking water contamination. Addressing our aging water infrastructure in Illinois is estimated to cost around $21.5 billion through 2030. Local water utilities need viable funding and financing streams to make this huge investment.
  • Rate and revenue restructuring. Some of the immediate problems utilities and users are encountering right now (such as disconnected users and revenue declines) can be traced back to how we as a society fund our water infrastructure. Water utilities face a difficult conundrum: how to ensure safe, affordable water and wastewater for all residents while generating enough revenue to pay for basic operations, maintenance and upgrades? Currently, our rate structures are leaving some residents behind. We need to reassess how we’re funding our water infrastructure to ensure it can operate into the future for all residents.
    The solutions to these problems vary from community to community: In some municipalities, a
    graduated water rate structure needs to be implemented; others would benefit from regionalization of services to broaden the user base; all utilities would likely benefit from a low-income rate assistance program. The point is that we need to have a statewide conversation about how to ensure the safe and sustainable operation of water and sewer utilities. MPC is advocating for this conversation in the Illinois State Water Plan.

Economic recovery

Thankfully, by increasing the resilience of our water infrastructure, we can help the country bounce back from the recession we’re entering. Studies consistently show that water infrastructure investment is a major economic boon. For a billion dollars in investment in water infrastructure, we can expect to see the following kinds of returns:

What does this mean for Illinois? Using the above figures:

  • Replacing all lead service lines in Illinois: 40,000 to 140,000 jobs and $10.4 to $13 billion in economic activity.
  • Fully addressing the $21.5 billion in needed water infrastructure repairs: 120,000-420,000 jobs and $28 billion in economic activity.

The thing to keep in mind about these (staggering) figures is that they only account for jobs supported and GDP growth--they don’t measure things like financial savings from improved health and secure livelihoods.

In addition to these massive projects, investing in water infrastructure can be much simpler and put people back to work quickly, which will be badly needed in the current context. For instance, maintaining green stormwater infrastructure often involves work such as basic landscaping and trash removal. These are immediate opportunities to employ and pay people for a day’s work.

It’s going to take deliberate efforts to ensure that these economic benefits are equitably shared across Chicago. The pain of coronavirus is being devestatingly and overwhelmingly borne by African Americans, and we need to ensure that recovery efforts explicitly include communities of color.

  • Federal water infrastructure training programs. Through programs like the Water Infrastructure Workforce Development Program, dedicated funding and programming could increase the participation of communities of color in water infrastrastructure careers.

Conclusion

COVID-19 has driven a wedge deep into longstanding cracks in our infrastructure system. As with economic inequality, healthcare, and public transit, the pandemic has reminded us how vulnerable our water systems are.

We need to invest in our water infrastructure to provide relief to utilities and users, increase our resilience to future shocks, and spur swift economic recovery. MPC is working on all of these fronts on behalf of the Chicago region's communities, residents, and businesses.

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