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The Boston Globe

Opinion

The Podium

State’s water system needs an upgrade

When the plumbing breaks at your home or office, how long do you wait to fix it? Not long! But the cost is often painful. The Commonwealth’s colonial plumbing is ancient…and broken. Will we fix it? Or will this remain out of sight and out of mind? And how can we pay for it? Of course we all like to build shiny, new buildings, bridges and parks. Fixing infrastructure is never sexy. But without a functioning water infrastructure we won’t have groundbreakings for the sexier projects because they won’t be possible. In fact, we will put our drinking water at risk, waste millions of tax dollars treating clean water that seeps into broken pipes, and inhibit our economic development.

Senate President Therese Murray and her colleagues Senators Jamie Eldridge and Bruce Tarr deserve great credit for introducing legislation that would increase funding for water infrastructure through grants and low-interest loans from the Water Pollution Abatement Trust. This is a hopeful start. The legislation supports conservation, technical assistance, best management practices and regional approaches for water management.

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In the other chamber, State Representative Carolyn Dykema has also been a leader on this issue. She proposed another funding option a bond bill authorizing capital funds also to be invested in water infrastructure, in partnership with your town, over ten years. This would come in the form of direct aid to cities and towns, a revolving fund for low interest loans and grants or forgiveable loans for best management practices, and real cost fees for ratepayers.

In both versions, how the funds are invested depends largely on the wisdom of the local community. One size does not fit all. Some need connections to large regional supply and treatment facilities. Others need smaller, local plants and repairs. Many would benefit from “green” adjustments that promote rainwater retention, conservation, reuse and stormwater recharging. Reducing the amount of runoff and waste saves towns and ratepayers money and improves the environment.

There is an upside to this investment. Not only will our plumbing work, but it will boost our economy. Infrastructure investment creates 16 percent more jobs, dollar for dollar, than a payroll tax holiday, and nearly 40 percent more jobs than an across the board tax cut, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. And for every $1 billion spent on clean water infrastructure in the United States, 28,500 new jobs are added, $3.4 billion is added to the GDP and personal income rises $1.1 billion, according to Stephen Fuller of the Associated General Contractors of America.

The cost of doing nothing…is disaster. Several regions of the country have already slowed development due to insufficient water supply and infrastructure. More than half of Global 500 business respondents surveyed nationally indicated they have already had adverse water-related business impacts and 68% identify water as a substantial risk to their business. Finally, if we do nothing, the problem gets worse and the cost grows higher. According to the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, over the next twenty years, costs could rise as high as $40 billion, including the need for improved drinking water systems and storm-water management. We cannot wait.

We come from different perspectives. We don’t always agree. But we have formed an alliance because this could be a win, win, win…for our environment, our economy and our communities. According to the US EPA, every job in water and sewer work creates another three new jobs. Every dollar spent results in $6.35 in long-term private output. Businesses can relocate and expand here. The building trades can go back to work. Our rivers, stream and open space will be protected by enhanced water conservation and recharging of aquifers. As our economy improves, now is the time to prudently invest. Not all at once, but over time, we can insure our economic and environmental future. There is a cost to fixing the plumbing, but the payback is clear. And as the saying goes, you can pay now or pay later. Let’s get it right. Let’s invest in our future…now.

George Bachrach is president of the Environmental League of Mass. Steven Tolman is president of the Mass. AFL-CIO.

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