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Nation Building at Home - Winter 2010 Issue

(by James Tierney, Assistant Commissioner for Water Resources)

A recent newspaper op-ed article spoke of the poor state of America's infrastructure and argued pointedly for US federal funding toward "nation building at home," even in these very difficult budget times. Antiquated electric grids, gas and oil pipelines, bridges, mass transit trains and tracks, drinking water filtration plants, school structures and municipal sewage treatment systems are just some of the structures that are receiving regular attention.

It's a stark statement, but we might need to think in terms of "nation building" here, so that the US doesn't wake up someday to find itself with a second-rate environment and economy over the long term.

Just two striking examples are a state Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) report that conservatively estimates that $36.2 billion is needed for municipal clean water infrastructure over the next 20 years and a state Department of Health report finding that $38 billion is needed for drinking water infrastructure over the same time period. These are daunting sums, to say the least.

Action was taken in New York (with the New York Water Environment Association as a key leader) to formulate the Clean Water Collaborative to raise awareness here and in Washington on this critical issue.

There has been quite a bit of success. Over half a billion dollars in federal stimulus funds toward drinking water and sewage infrastructure has been received and deployed in New York, and the Governor recently announced NYSDEC's award of $61.5 million in grants under the Water Quality Improvement Program portion of the state's Environmental Protection Fund. New York's office of the US Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Program deployed in excess of $70 million in stimulus dollars toward water infrastructure repair in smaller communities. Progress, to be sure.

The sad fact, however, is that these funds are just a first step toward solving our infrastructure problems and taking some of the pressure off hard-pressed municipalities. Of course, productive jobs associated with fixing our infrastructure are a big plus as well.

Yes, times are tight, the federal government seems to be increasingly focused on reducing expenditures, and there are some major changes coming in Congress. Yet even in this climate, the time is right to redouble our cooperative and bi-partisan efforts to make the case for continuing high levels of federal funding for fixing clean water infrastructure and maintaining clean water jobs.

It seems so fundamental. Our wonderful nation, our wonderful home, deserves nothing less.

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