With both President-elect Barack Obama and congressional leaders signaling that they would like energy and infrastructure improvements to be key components of the next stimulus package, what role could water infrastructure investments play? During today's OnPoint, Betsy Otto, vice president of strategic partnerships at American Rivers, discusses the condition of the United States' water infrastructure and how the next economic stimulus could help make improvements and boost jobs in this sector.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With us today is Betsy Otto, vice president of Strategic Partnerships at American Rivers and an expert on water infrastructure. Betsy, thanks for coming on the show.
Betsy Otto: Thanks for having me.
Monica Trauzzi: Betsy, there's a lot of talk right now about the next stimulus package that Congress will likely begin discussing at the beginning of January. And President-elect Obama has signaled that he'd like energy and transportation infrastructure measures to be included in this stimulus. But you argue that water infrastructure should really play an important part in the stimulus as well. Why? Where does the nation's water infrastructure stand at this point and why is it in need of so much help?
Betsy Otto: Well, America's infrastructure, water infrastructure, is really at a crisis point. We have some of the most aged and outmoded and crumbling infrastructure in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. The Association of Civil Engineers, the Society of Civil Engineers has said that water and waste water treatment infrastructure gets a D-minus grade, that's the lowest grade of any infrastructure category that they look at. And we know that our existing water infrastructure systems and our water resources are really at a crisis point. They're strained by population growth, by over-demand and with climate change we're going to see even more problems, increased droughts and floods. So we really need to address those problems. And President-elect Obama has talked about including funding in an infrastructure stimulus package for water and we're happy to hear that.
Monica Trauzzi: So, highlight for us the types of projects that you think should be included in the stimulus, specifically what projects do you have in mind?
Betsy Otto: Well, we're not so much talking about specific projects as kinds of projects that we think are important to fund. Certainly, we need to repair aging pipes and treatment plants. But we'd also like to see a fundamental change in the way we manage water in this country, so that we're looking more at the kinds of 21st-century solutions, not the kinds of 19th and 20th century approaches that we've used in the past that make sense for managing water. And that includes infrastructure, investments in green infrastructure. And by that I mean investing in water efficiency instead of building a new dam, investing in floodplain restoration and moving structures out of harm's way instead of building taller and taller levies, capturing rain water where it falls and using it as a resource, for example, for irrigation, to cool buildings, even to flush toilets with as opposed to using Evian-quality, treated water. Those are the kinds of approaches that many cities are already using all across the country. We'd really like to see much more investment in those kinds of solutions.
Monica Trauzzi: How much money are we talking about to do something like that?
Betsy Otto: Well, we actually, in a very quick survey of 25 cities in 25 states and the District of Columbia, identified over a billion dollars in ready to go green infrastructure projects, over 200 projects. And, as I said, that was really just in doing a quick survey with people around the country. So we know that there's a tremendous demand for these kinds of approaches. What we've asked for is a minimum of 15 percent of any clean water funding to go for green infrastructure projects and solutions. And integrating those into our existing water infrastructure systems makes a lot of sense. It takes a lot of pressure off of, for example, when we plant green roofs or use approaches to keep rainwater out of sewers, we don't have to build larger sewers. We don't have to build larger treatment plants and we also get a good source of fresh water, as I said before, that we can use for other purposes.
Monica Trauzzi: And obviously the whole point of the stimulus is to jumpstart the economy in a very short amount of time. Do these projects allow for that type of quick turnaround and what about job growth? Talk about that in terms of these types of projects. What are the numbers there?
Betsy Otto: Absolutely, I mean the projects that I mentioned, the 200 or so billion dollar plus in green infrastructure projects, would be ready to go within six to nine months, many of them sooner than that. Cities have already identified these projects, have done the initial planning and even engineering for many of these and are just waiting for the monies they need to actually implement the full projects. We did an analysis where, American Rivers did, where we looked at if 600 cities, cities over 50,000 in population, planted rooftop green roofs or garden roofs, that we could generate over 190,000 jobs if 1 percent of those large roofs in 600 cities planted green roofs. And these are jobs in landscaping and design, in engineering, these are good jobs. The Alliance for Water Efficiency did an analysis recently which they released which showed that if we invested $10 billion in water efficiency programs we could create between 150,000 and 220,000 jobs, so really significant opportunities there. And they also looked at the sort of total economic stimulus value of that sort of investment. And for every million dollars of investment in water efficiency the multiplier effect is $2.5 to $2.8 million. So it's not just the direct, immediate jobs that are created with these solutions, it's the supply chains, the impermeable roof membranes, impermeable pavement. The toilet manufacturers and plumbing manufacturers would be very excited about this because taking out old, inefficient plumbing fixtures creates lots of good jobs, both for the plumbers and the folks that are doing the retrofits, but also for the manufacturers of those products, many of whom are manufacturing here in the U.S.
Monica Trauzzi: So we're talking about quite a bit of money to get these projects off the ground, might the water infrastructure issue benefit more if it was sort of considered more broadly in an all-encompassing piece of legislation rather than through the stimulus, which, you know, it's only going to get a piece of the pie? Might there be a chance for some broader water legislation down the road that would help serve your purpose a little better?
Betsy Otto: Well, I certainly think there are opportunities for that and we hope that the new president will pay some attention to that because we've had woefully little intention paid to clean water issues and to protecting what is really an essential community resource and essential for public health and safety and the basis of economic growth as well. But the immediate issue is getting people back to work, stimulating the economy. There's obviously a lot of interest in investing in infrastructure and we think that makes a lot of sense. And there's plenty to do on the water infrastructure front, including the kinds of green infrastructure solutions that I've just talked about. So we feel that's a very important component to include.
Monica Trauzzi: Do you think the public and lawmakers are aware of the water infrastructure issues that we have here in the U.S.? I mean we're certainly aware of the transportation issues. You're driving down the road, you understand it. But is it as simple to understand when it comes to water?
Betsy Otto: No, I think that's a really good question. I think the public generally isn't that aware. I mean many have said that water will be the oil of the 21st century. I think some elected leaders and certainly folks that are managing these systems are starting to become very concerned about the strain that we're putting on both our built infrastructure and our natural water infrastructure generally. So I think that there is a general lack of public awareness about this. Certainly, there's been a lot of attention paid recently to transportation issues, as you said, and energy. And water doesn't always get the same amount of attention, but the folks that know, including people that are running cities and running these systems, realize that this is essential to our economic vitality and that these are really serious problems. So part of our goal here is to really raise the visibility of the kinds of green solutions that make more sense, that help communities meet their water needs, that create jobs, but also that help save money. And that's really important point here. Indianapolis for example, instead of building larger and larger underground sewer pipes is saving $300 million by investing in tree planting, in green roofs, in permeable pavement. And a lot of cities are looking at strategies like that right now as a way of saving municipal service costs and those savings than can be used to hire teachers, to hire firefighters and meet other community needs.
Monica Trauzzi: So, if not enough is done in the stimulus for water infrastructure, do you expect capital expenditure on water infrastructure to decrease in 2009 because of the credit crunch?
Betsy Otto: A lot of estimates suggest that capital funding will either decline or be flat. And the reality is that we need much more than that. The U.S. EPA has estimated that over the next 15 to 20 years we are looking at a $500 billion capital funding need. And the reality is that most local communities and states don't have the money to meet that need. So a stimulus package right now to help provide additional funding is really essential.
Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there on that note. Thank you for coming on the show.
Betsy Otto: Thanks for having me.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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