By Chad Seidel
Our country’s drinking water infrastructure is in desperate need of attention. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our water system a C- and its economic study found that the annual investment shortfall in drinking water and wastewater will eventually reach $434 billion. dollars by 2029. The fact is, our nation’s drinking water infrastructure requires massive investment.
President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Jobs and Investments Act includes $50 billion for improvements to drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. This funding is significant and the list of drinking water infrastructure needs is long. Water supply systems need resources to hire and train staff, maintain operations, replace and service aging pipes, and meet regulatory standards for drinking water. With limited resources, there are important decisions to be made at the federal, local and state levels.
We must ensure that public funds are distributed and spent on the most pressing issues that address the greatest public health risks. These taxpayer dollars must be allocated carefully using science-based risk and cost-benefit analysis of drinking water issues. It is not always beneficial to public health or economically viable to address every potential or new threat to water. Sometimes the biggest risk to water is the oldest problem, like aging drinking water pipes. It is incumbent upon our drinking water utilities and public health departments to prioritize the highest risk of public health threats. Applying a risk-cost-benefit approach compares the range of pressing issues and helps determine the most beneficial public health investment.
Fortunately, this cost and risk-benefit analysis is built into drinking water laws designed to protect our water supply. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires that the regulation of our drinking water systems demonstrate a “meaningful opportunity to reduce health risks”. Since the passage of the Act, proposed drinking water rules and regulations have been assessed against this “meaningful” standard, and those that met it have been implemented.
This same rigor in assessing public health impact must be applied to how these new infrastructure funds are spent. Agencies that oversee how these funds are spent must ensure that taxpayers’ money protects us from the risks that cause the most harm.
This analysis should not take time or delay the urgency of action required for drinking water issues. History sets the context for the present and important information can be learned from past investments in drinking water.
I have been fortunate to work with several water engineers and risk experts to create the Relative Health Indicators approach to help inform funding decisions by examining the relative health benefits of treating a contaminant of drinking water compared to another. This approach quantifies potential health risk reductions by comparing the risk profile of a contaminant with other contaminants to create an objective and comparable scale of “significant opportunity” justifications. For example, currently unregulated contaminants can be compared to regulated contaminants using their regulatory determination information.
The value of this risk-based approach is illustrated when considering the debate around perchlorate in drinking water. Many groups have advocated for stricter regulation of perchlorate and costly measures to reduce levels in tap water. So should regulators prioritize perchlorate over other pressing water infrastructure needs and would these costs meet the standard of “meaningful risk reduction”? The Relative Health Indicator assessment shows that the risk of perchlorate falls below the lowest threshold of “significantly reduced risk” as defined by contaminants previously regulated under the Food Safety Act. potable water.
Drinking water risks are especially high today for rural and low-income communities due to contaminants that are already regulated but not fully addressed. These communities are historically underserved and lack resources.
Today, many lack the resources to properly address deteriorating drinking water infrastructure and exposure to the most dangerous contaminants. In some cases, they completely lack hydraulic infrastructure. These high-risk communities must be at the top of our nation’s priority list. That’s why we urge regulators to continue to use this comparative risk analysis when investing in drinking water issues in the future.
Our country’s water infrastructure needs are enormous and the costs are significant. We must be diligent and ensure that future funding is focused on areas that will most improve access to clean, safe drinking water for all.
Chad Seidel, Ph.D., PE, is president of Corona Environmental Consulting and an affiliate researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He got his doctorate. in Environmental Engineering from CU-Boulder and is a multi-state licensed professional engineer.