Water crisis is all about pipes
Communities across the state face critical water infrastructure demands that total nearly $10 billion and will escalate to about $23 billion in statewide water infrastructure costs over the next 20 years.
According to a recent survey conducted by the League of Oregon Cities (LOC) in partnership with Portland State University's Center for Public Service, the state's water infrastructure demands include addressing issues that affect both water supply and water quality issues.
Of the 241 cities the LOC sent the survey to, 100 responded with examples of how their infrastructure is in serious need of repair. Oregon's local water and wastewater providers are also facing new and emerging challenges that add to the costs and require additional investment. These include seismic upgrades to ensure critical components of water systems will withstand a Cascadia earthquake.
Other challenges include additional system capacity to support needed housing, more water supply storage to combat persistent drought and declining snowpack, and new and more stringent water quality permit requirements — including for stormwater.
"Our water infrastructure is too often out of sight and, therefore, out of mind," said Tracy Rutten Rainey, LOC's lobbyist. "The costs of providing this critical and necessary infrastructure are, unfortunately, outpacing the budgetary capacity of local communities. Oregonians can't afford to bear these costs alone. We are urging the state and federal government to make real investments in water infrastructure. We simply can't afford to wait."
According to a 2020 news release from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, less than 5% of the total budget for operations, from infrastructure to water treatment, comes from the federal government. The rest is paid for by states, and the revenue utilities generate.
Rutten Rainey noted that the cost of maintaining and improving the state's water infrastructure has already surpassed the affordability level for many municipalities, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated that.
"These are Oregonians who are struggling to pay their bills, including their water and sewer bills, and the bills are high across the state but particularly in rural areas because they don't have larger populations to spread the cost over," she said. "It becomes very evident really quickly that things cannot continue to be financed at the local level."
Rutten Rainey pointed to the city of Banks, which in March extended its development moratorium for the fourth time since December 2018 because of poor water supply. A project to replace the main water transmission line is not expected to be complete until next year.
"Many legislators aren't aware of cities like Banks that are part of a growth moratorium," she said. "There is a tendency to see these large numbers and not think about how they play out at the local level."
Investment pays off, but who is going to do the work?
On the national level, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that the U.S. needs to invest an additional $82 billion per year in water infrastructure at all levels of government over the next 10 years to meet project capital needs.
If the estimated investment gap were closed, it would result in more than $220 billion in total economic activity. These investments would generate and sustain approximately 1.3 million jobs over the 10 years.
ASCE's forecast states that "the value of safe provision, delivery and treatment of water to customers results in significant avoided costs for businesses that would otherwise have to provide their own water supplies." These investments would save U.S. businesses about $94 billion a year in sales over the next 10 years and as much as $402 billion a year from 2027 to 2040.
The demand for improved water infrastructure across the nation and, specifically, in Oregon raises the question about whether the engineering sector has the resources – people, experience and expertise – to fill the gap if funding is available.
Zak Toledo, a principal and regional manager for Murraysmith's Portland office, is a native Oregonian who has been a public infrastructure consultant for 21 years. He said industry leaders are concerned about the ability to provide enough staff to meet clients' needs. Several national business publications have detailed "The Great Resignation," referring to established professionals choosing other careers during the pandemic, including engineering professionals. Also, potential engineers are postponing college or taking longer to complete their degrees and enter the industry.
At the college level, Murraysmith and other firms are working with local universities to ensure students obtain at least a year of on-the-job experience before graduating, and new grads are most often hired by the public agency or private firm they worked for while earning their degree. In addition, the pandemic has honed remote working arrangements, so firms and agencies are able to hire young professionals living in other states who can work remotely until they relocate to Oregon.
Ultimately, though, a robust history of wanting to make communities healthier is sustaining the sector of professionals who maintain and improve the state's water infrastructure.
"One of the things that helps us in the market, and especially the water infrastructure market, is that this is purpose-driven work," Toledo said, adding people have been attracted to the profession to ensure pure drinking water and other environmental protections for decades. "The generations might change their story, but ultimately people are interested in clean water. There is an absolutely tangible benefit to what we do for communities."
Other key research findings from the League of Oregon Cities' 2021 water infrastructure survey report include:
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