Op Ed

Federal Water Infrastructure Spending Needed

In Wisconsin could be used to replace lead service lines and improve sewerage systems.

By - Jun 14th, 2021 05:28 pm
Lead service lines replaced by the Milwaukee Water Works with corrosion control visible in pipe. Image from Milwaukee Water Works.

Lead service lines replaced by the Milwaukee Water Works with corrosion control visible in pipe. Image from Milwaukee Water Works.

Wisconsinites proved our resilience in 2020. The pandemic put stress on our community, but we continued to persevere. Now, as we are starting to return to a brighter horizon, it’s time to take stock of what our priorities should be in a post-pandemic world. Clean water needs to be high on the list.

The pandemic has underscored the urgency of clean water in two ways. First, as many of us were stuck at home, we realized how much we depend on the drinking water coming out of our kitchen sinks. And second, as it is (finally) becoming safe for us to flock to the shores of Lake Michigan or any of our states’ wonderful inland lakes this summer, now more than ever we hope the water will be safe for swimming.

However, getting to clean water will require fixing our infrastructure. We still have billions of gallons of sewage overflows and runoff pollution contaminating where we swim. In 2019, authorities tested 61 Wisconsin beaches and found that they had potentially unsafe levels of fecal bacteria at least one day during the year. South Shore Beach in Milwaukee was potentially unsafe on 19 days, which was more than any other beach in the state.

Lead in our drinking water is an equally persistent problem. We still have an estimated 240,000 lead service lines across Wisconsin, including an estimated 70,000 in the city of Milwaukee alone. Nationwide, there are an estimated 9 million toxic pipes, but we need to do more work to identify the actual number. These toxic pipes are contaminating our water with a potent neurotoxin that damages our children’s health. They’ve got to go.

To build a better future, we need an ambitious and bold infrastructure package. President Biden and Chairman DeFazio have put out good roadmaps. If we want our lakes and beaches to be safe for swimming, then Congress should, as a start, fully fund the Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grants program and ramp up the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to $8 billion this year. And if we want lead-free water for our children, then we’ll need to provide the $45 billion proposed in President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to replace all the lead pipes across the country.

Here in Milwaukee, a new project with native plants and catch basins will help absorb stormwater from Interstate 794 and thereby protect local waterways from runoff pollution. These green infrastructure projects are a cost-effective way of preventing pollution. They also help us restore ecosystems and address community flooding from more severe storms. Congress should dedicate substantial funding to them. Similarly, when substantial lead contamination has already been confirmed at schools across the country, let’s increase our investments so that schools and other facilities serving children can install new fountains and filters that will actually keep our kids’ water safe.

Finally, we need to make sure this funding is accessible to all communities, no matter their income or size. This can be done by setting aside water infrastructure funding for grants rather than loans, which would allow communities to access federal funds without fear of having to take out loans that they cannot afford to pay back.

We have a once in a generation opportunity to secure clean water for America. Let’s do it.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore has represented the 4th District in Congress since 2005. Megan Severson is the State Director of Wisconsin Environment.

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