Vaikko Allen is region regulatory director for Contech Engineered Solutions. Allen can be reached at [email protected]
May 08, 2017

Intelligent Infrastructure Investment

Infrastructure is a modern creation. The first recorded use of the word was in 1927, and it didn’t enter the common public vernacular until sometime in the 1970s.  And much of the transportation, energy, water and waste management infrastructure that recently received an overall grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) was designed and built sometime in between. The accumulated operation and maintenance burden of keeping these systems in good working order has been a struggle for governments at all levels.  So, it makes sense that a major theme of the 2016 presidential election, and a primary commitment of the Trump administration, is infrastructure investment. A 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure initiative has been a rallying point for many, from construction workers to the Dow Jones Industrial Index. But what could it mean for storm water improvements?

Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) and storm water pollution prevention controls are not commonly discussed infrastructure categories. However, infrastructure projects in the more commonly tracked areas like roads, ports, rail and even bridges are likely to trigger storm water permit requirements. This is a good thing. And considering other funding priorities and regulatory dynamics, directing a significant portion of any infrastructure spending toward watershed retrofit projects would be wise. At the federal level, a 31% cut to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been proposed in President Donald Trump's “skinny budget,” which would eliminate the Nonpoint Source Pollution Prevention Program, all major watershed restoration initiatives around the country, and most state and local program support. And, of course these cuts would be additive with cuts to other civilian programs that would also hit at the state and local level. At the same time, regulatory requirements are becoming ever more stringent, particularly as load allocations from TMDLs are incorporated into Phase I MS4 permits, setting in place definitive and enforceable timelines for compliance with water quality standards.

The simple fact is that storm water infrastructure improvements have been chronically underfunded. And even if all the promised benefits of green infrastructure, integrated planning, public-private partnerships, and credit trading are delivered and drive down the cost of compliance, we are still likely to run out of money and public goodwill before meeting applicable water quality standards. For example, although they did not report on storm water separately, ASCE estimated in 2016 that an additional annual expenditure of $82 billion at all levels of government over ten years would be required to meet all water infrastructure needs nationally. Closer to my home, in Los Angeles County, the estimated cost of storm water improvements required by their latest MS4 permit is about $20 billion over 25 years.  Clearly, it is incumbent upon us to spend what money we can gather very wisely.

A couple of suggestions here to get us moving in the right direction:

  • Storm water management requirements must not be waived as a means of simplifying or accelerating delivery of other infrastructure projects. Doing so would not only squander an opportunity to make improvements as a component of larger construction projects when they are most economical, but it could actually make water quality issues worse by adding inadequately treated impervious surfaces to already overburdened systems.
  • Infrastructure funding should be directed toward projects with significant water quality protection benefits, in particular, those projects that provide multiple benefits like reducing combined sewer overflow events, increasing water supply and providing habitat and recreation benefits.  This would be money well spent in terms of job creation, economic stimulation, and improvement in quality of life.  A recent report by the Value of Water Campaign titled, “The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure” concludes that closing the water-related infrastructure gap would generate $220 billion in economic activity and would support 1.3 million American jobs.   

The bottom line is that water infrastructure spending is good for the bottom line whether you’re counting jobs, economic growth or quality of life.