The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a tragic reminder of the hidden costs of our nation’s failing infrastructure. Whether through benign neglect or deliberate “starve the beast” cost-cutting measures, we are continually seeing the costly and sometimes terrible consequences of failing to meet our infrastructure financing needs. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state of U.S. infrastructure a D+ grade in its most recent 2013 Report Card, which included a D for both drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. According to the organization, fixing the nation’s infrastructure will require $3.6 trillion through 2020.
This past week, EPA added its voice to this discussion over infrastructure finance with the release of its quadrennial Clean Watershed Needs Survey. Every four years EPA submits this report to Congress, as required by the Clean Water Act, detailing the total capital wastewater and stormwater treatment and collection needs of the nation. In compiling the data for the survey, EPA works with the states to report their unmet needs for various categories of wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. But it’s important for readers of the survey to understand that because the report relies on self-reporting and includes only unmet needs, the state-by-state or year-over-year comparisons inevitably prove unreliable and unhelpful.
It’s also worth noting that the survey is almost as revealing for the data that are not available as it is for the information actually in the report. For example, one state (South Carolina) neglected to participate in the survey altogether and 15 states failed to report any information about their stormwater infrastructure needs (the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia each failed to report costs associated with the low impact development and green infrastructure category of stormwater needs).
Within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, one state and infrastructure category stands out. Maryland ranks second in the nation, behind only much larger California, for estimated total stormwater management needs, and ranks first by a large margin among all states in the nation for reported “green infrastructure” needs (with Maryland reporting nearly half of all such needs nationwide). Green infrastructure includes things such as rain gardens, permeable pavers, bioswales, and other similar practices designed not just to channel water and prevent flooding, but to restore water quality in adjacent streams and waterbodies by making the urban environment less impervious to rainwater.
Of course, it is worth reiterating that the survey’s reported green infrastructure needs for Maryland cannot be interpreted to mean that the state’s stormwater infrastructure is in more dire shape than any other state. Under that logic, more than half of the states have no green infrastructure needs at all. Rather, the relatively huge reported needs of Maryland really underscores that few states have given the attention that Maryland has to the importance of green infrastructure and the other advanced stormwater best management practices needed to restore urban waters. According to the survey, and as reflected in this map, Maryland officials projected (as of 2012) that the additional five-year statewide cost to fully fund green infrastructure is just under $1.4 billion (two counties were not included in this estimate).
Maryland’s state and local engineers and other officials deserve credit for going through the very important but time-consuming exercise of trying to estimate the cost to comply with Maryland’s municipal stormwater permits and to restore the Chesapeake Bay and all local imparied waterways located within the state’s urban areas. Unfortunately, Maryland’s politicians deserve some blame, both for dragging their heels and in some cases rolling back the funding sources and legal requirements to support green infrastructure. The absurd and counterproductive targeting of Maryland’s stormwater fees in the last gubernatorial election, followed by the passage of a bill last year to repeal the stormwater fee mandate of the largest counties, has taken a number of Maryland counties backward. Instead of meeting their obligations under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL) and the conditions in their municipal stormwater (“MS4”) permits, the counties that have eliminated (or are in the process of eliminating) stormwater fees risk running afoul of federal law and jeopardizing public health and local water quality. These counties (enabled by a quiescent department of the environment) are also missing out on the opportunity to lead the nation in installing green infrastucture, which is increasingly being shown as an extraordinarily effective driver of economic, environmental, and community benefits.
This week’s release of the Clean Watersheds Needs Survey by EPA highlights the enormous unmet needs for green infrastructure, stormwater management generally, and other water quality infrastructure in the United States. If our politicians fail to heed these warnings and withhold the necessary resources to support water infrastructure they will continue to imperil the health of their constituents and the environment of their local communities.