While a great deal of confusion surrounds Donald Trump, we know he is committed to turning public resources over to private control. Schools, roads and bridges, even our public lands are up for grabs. But perhaps the greatest danger lies in his plans to privatize our water, letting businesses own and operate the systems that deliver this vital resource.
Privatization is a core element Trump’s loudly-touted “infrastructure plan,” which has yet to see the light of day. But states can make progress on their own in upgrading infrastructure. There’s a refreshing bipartisan discussion here in New York state over investing in our public water systems. With the April deadline approaching for finalizing the state budget, we must think big. A real commitment is needed – at least $800 million a year every year – to begin the process of rebuilding New York’s crumbling water infrastructure.
The lead tragedy in Flint was a wakeup call that our water is at risk – but it is a problem rooted in broad, systemic neglect. In 1977, the nation spent $76 per person to support public water; that figure now stands at less than $14 per person – an 82 percent decline. This lack of investment causes trillions of gallons of drinking water to leak through crumbling pipes, wasting an estimated $2.6 billion each year.
Some of New York’s water systems are over 100 years old, risking our health and environment. The failure to maintain this basic service has created a massive backlog of repairs and upgrades. According to a February report by Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, New York needs nearly $40 billion over the next 20 years for drinking water fixes. And that doesn’t include the $36 billion necessary for wastewater treatment, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Governor Cuomo’s proposed $2 billion – just $400 million annually for five years – on water projects barely scratches the surface. The toxic pollution in Hoosick Falls and Newburgh brought home the nightmare of contaminated water. Across New York, communities struggle to operate and maintain the systems that provide water to our homes, schools, and businesses. Water main breaks flood neighborhoods, sewage overflows discharge millions of gallons of untreated waste into waterways, failing septic systems pollute our environment, lead pipes poison our children – it adds up to an enormous crisis that demands an equivalent response.
Fortunately, investing in our water systems also means lots of good-paying jobs. A 2009 study by the Clean Water Council estimated that every $1 billion spent on water infrastructure could create between 20,000 and 27,000 jobs across the economy. Governor Cuomo and the legislature could promote safe water and clean energy by creating jobs laying water pipelines instead of fossil fuel pipelines.
“Clean water” appears to be on Trump’s enemies list. Trump launched his assault on our water by approving the Dakota Access pipeline and beginning to undo President Obama’s Waters of the U.S. rule. The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget is in his cross-hairs now proposing a 31 percent cut. And he plans to spend upwards of $25 billion on a senseless wall on the Mexico border; for the same amount, we could replace the vast majority of lead service lines bringing water into our homes.
New York should demonstrate a better model for how to protect, deliver, and manage water. We need our elected officials to provide reliable, steady funding for safe public water for all. The heartbreak in Flint, Hoosick Falls and Newburgh are lessons enough that we don't want danger flowing from our tap. Governor Cuomo and the legislature must make a sustained investment in our water systems.