The Monitor

Water Infrastructure Crises Nationwide and in Illinois

Fall/Winter 2022

Michael Lingl, Special Projects

The need for major water infrastructure investments in the U.S. is at an unprecedented level. Whether it is drinking water pipes, stormwater retention systems, wastewater treatment systems, or water towers, our nation’s water systems face staggering public investment needs over the next several decades. In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) “2021 Infrastructure Report Card” gave the U.S. a C- grade for drinking water infrastructure. Just like roads, bridges, railroads, and most of the nation’s infrastructure, water infrastructure has been underfunded for far too long and major water crises are growing.

The United States’ water infrastructure shortcomings were previously brought to the public’s attention by Flint, Michigan and most recently, by the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, where approximately 150,000 residents were left without access to safe drinking water. In Illinois, recent data shows “shocking” levels of lead in Chicago tap water along with “forever chemicals” discovered in multiple water sources across the state. Funding for drinking water infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing need to address aging infrastructure systems, and current funding sources do not meet the total needs. On average, about two-thirds of public spending for capital investments in water infrastructure since the 1980s have been made by state and local governments. Smaller municipalities are unable to properly fund these investments and raising water utility bills on residents is often not enough to fund necessary projects.

The average water bill in America has increased by up to 80% in the last decade. While larger metropolitan cities have a better capability to handle water issues, smaller towns cannot always afford to make repairs. This either means a backlog of water infrastructure needs or it can potentially leave the door open for private companies to acquire ownership of water systems. Unfortunately, private ownership does not always fix the problem. The ASCE gave Illinois a D+ grade for drinking water infrastructure in 2022.

Natural disasters are also part of the equation. The western United States continues to go through “megadroughts” and would like to divert the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers to help feed the Colorado River basin, so they have enough water for farming and agriculture. The water supply in Las Vegas and New Mexico was tainted with fire-related debris and ash following forest fires. The Florida coast was impacted by Hurricane Ian, causing damage to water infrastructure that contaminated clean drinking water. Across the country, there are numerous water infrastructure needs to be addressed.

In Illinois, planning to mitigate and reduce flooding that cause rivers to overflow is crucial. Neighborhoods in the City of Des Plaines were heavily impacted by the widespread damage from severe floods in 2008 and 2013. Nearly 90 structures had to be demolished and permanently removed from the floodplain in the city’s Big Bend Drive neighborhood. Many streets and homes were left underwater from a severe rainstorm in 2020, as well. Having stormwater plans must be made a top priority to increase the effectiveness of flood mitigation in cases such as these. The Illinois State Water Plan was recently updated to take on these threats to the quality of life for its residents.

In addition, over 675,000 of 4 million total drinking water service lines in Illinois have been identified as having lead and almost 380,000 have copper with lead solder services. Fortunately, approximately $288 million has been provided by Congress in FY22 for Illinois water infrastructure, which is more than double the amount awarded in FY21. The Illinois EPA (IEPA) has been providing low-interest loans to local governments with the Wastewater and Drinking Water loan programs through the State Revolving Fund (SRF). IEPA is currently assisting communities with the replacement of lead service lines by allowing a one-time, $95 million transfer of wastewater loan funds to the drinking water loan program. Those funds will be solely dedicated to lead service line replacement activities in FY21-FY23.

Fortunately, the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act has committed an unprecedented investment in our nation’s water infrastructure. The law provides $50 billion dedicated to water infrastructure projects, investing through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) State Revolving Funds and through the Agency’s geographic programs and National Estuary Program to protect and restore treasured national waters. These efforts make the law the single largest investment in water infrastructure in U.S. history to replace lead pipes and build resilient drinking water and wastewater systems.

However, the funding is still not enough to address the massive needs across the country. ASCE’s 2020 economic study, “The Economic Benefits of Investing in Water Infrastructure: How a Failure to Act Would Affect the U.S. Economic Recovery” found that the annual drinking water and wastewater investment gap will grow to $434 billion by 2029. Additionally, the cost to comply with the EPA’s 2019 Lead and Copper Rule is estimated at between $130 million and $286 million.

While water infrastructure funding has increased within the last few years across the country due to increases at the federal level and some increases at the state level – like here in Illinois – there is still an enormous underfunding. Access to clean and safe drinking water is critical to public health. We at the Indiana, Illinois, Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting look forward to continuing to advocate for clean water infrastructure projects across our jurisdiction in hopes of rebuilding crumbling and unsanitary water infrastructure. Residents deserve to have safe and updated infrastructure they can rely on when turning on their faucet.

From the Fall/Winter 2022 Issue of The Monitor.