Water Infrastructure Improvements Needed

Irrigation Leader magazine

Feb 09 2017

As one of Arkansas’s largest industries, agriculture is crucial to the state’s economy. Arkansas is home to 44,000 farms generating an economic benefit of $20 billion a year and employing one out of every six Arkansans. Despite the many blessings of natural resources that make it ideal for agribusiness, farmers and ranchers in Arkansas are unfortunately familiar with the devastating economic impact of droughts. 

This is not a problem unique to Arkansas. Across the country, farmers are facing a water crisis. With water prices rising and access to water decreasing, it is clear that we must act now.

The agriculture industry in the western United States has been dealing with a water crisis for years, and it is having an extremely negative impact on the economy of these states. The University of California Davis recently released a drought report on the economic impact to California. Researchers found that statewide, the 2014 drought cost $2.2 billion in lost revenue and the loss of more than 17,000 seasonal and part-time jobs.

As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, I understand the importance of infrastructure investment. During my time in Congress I have been a constant advocate for water resources development and infrastructure.

In the 114th Congress I supported passage of the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation (WIIN) Act as well as a comprehensive highway bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. Passing these pieces of legislation was a major step forward. There is still more to be done and I’m looking forward to opportunities we’ll have to make investments in the 115th Congress.

Like many Americans, I am encouraged by the Trump administration’s commitment to improving our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. We must provide funding for infrastructure critical to the agricultural water supply and ground water protection.

Following the example set by President Dwight Eisenhower and the establishment of the interstate highway system, it is clear that infrastructure investment boosts our economy, creates immediate jobs and produces decades of economic opportunity. Unfortunately, since the president signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, we have relied on a fix-as-fail approach to our nation’s infrastructure. Not only is this approach more expensive, increasingly causing delays to commerce, but it also poses a risk to public safety. America’s infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating. Our country faces a multi-hundred billion dollar shortfall for water infrastructure investments, which includes drinking water, sewer and agricultural water supply projects. This shortage is reflected in the American Society of Civil Engineers overall grade for America’s infrastructure, a D+.

America is now at a crossroads. We need to address our aging infrastructure, but it comes with a cost. However, we have options that can help fund infrastructure projects, so we can get shovels in the ground and projects underway.

The federal government has provided funding to establish revolving loan grant programs — administered by the states — as well as resources through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). This program leverages small investments to make sure taxpayers get the most bang for the buck.

In an effort to make the WIFIA program a viable option for critical agricultural water-supply projects in Arkansas, I included language in the WIIN bill to reform the program. The WIFIA program can only finance up to 49 percent of a project’s costs. My language clarifies that costs incurred and in-kind contributions made before the receipt of a WIFIA loan count toward the 51 percent of the project that must be financed by non-WIFIA dollars. This is a great first step to open up a new financing option that ensures farmers have access to the water necessary to keep Arkansas agriculture strong.

Another option to fund infrastructure projects is a public-private partnership, or P3. P3s are a crucial component of the new administration’s proposal, and are necessary to get the $1 trillion investment in infrastructure that the plan promises. While P3s are a great way to fund highway projects, Congress has yet to find a mechanism that funds all types of infrastructure problems. Finding a way to incentivize the private sector into investing in water infrastructure is vital.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates there is another multi-billion dollar backlog in operation and maintenance costs for the coastal and inland waterway system. With this kind of backlog, it is apparent that the government cannot fix the problem on its own. Our country will need the help of the private sector to invest much needed capital into infrastructure projects.

Both of these options will help with America’s woefully underfunded water infrastructure needs and make it possible to get projects done on time and on budget, something the federal government has failed to do for decades.

Congress needs to do a better job providing the basic public services such as safe roads, bridges and clean drinking water for citizens. This is the time to act and make water infrastructure investment a priority. With innovative financing and private sector investment we can address our infrastructure problem before it is too late. Not only will we be providing Americans with basic water infrastructure, but we will be creating jobs, keeping commodity prices low and remaining competitive with foreign competition on the global stage.

We can no longer kick the can down the road and ignore our infrastructure problem. It is time for the United States to be realistic about its water problems and start investing in agricultural water supply so we can continue to provide the most affordable, most reliable food supply the world has ever known.

This column was published in the February 2017 edition of Irrigation Leader magazine