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Reaching the Boiling Point

Our aging water systems are long past due for a major overhaul.

President Barack Obama recently announced plans to modernize our crumbling roads, rails, and airports while providing jobs for the construction industry. While we certainly need to fix our nation's transportation infrastructure, another crucial set of systems in the U.S. begs for attention. Water infrastructure in every state in the U.S. is woefully outdated.

A national crisis looms, but it's one we can avert through a renewed commitment to modernizing and maintaining our public water systems.

Across the nation, aging water pipes break, stranding residents and businesses without the water needed to fulfill basic needs. This happened in the Boston area earlier this year when a water main broke, prompting a boil notice for some two million area residents. The bill to repair the damages that ensued climbed to over $600,000, and the federal government contributed nothing.

The consequences of aging sewer systems can be worse. When aging sewer pipes burst, they spill untreated waste into rivers, lakes, and streams. In 2009, for the fifth year in a row, the United States saw more than 18,000 closures and advisories at ocean, bay, and Great Lake beaches.  Many were the result of these messy system failures.

When Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, it raised the bar for drinking water standards. The Clean Water Act of 1972 promised much-needed money to communities to help them protect this essential resource. But times have changed.

U.S. public drinking water systems need an average of $17 billion a year. In 2010, Congress appropriated only $1.4 billion for the federal fund that provides this money--enough to finance only 8 percent of what's needed. Similarly, wastewater systems require an average of $11.6 billion a year--a virtual ocean of dollars compared to the $2.1 billion puddle the federal government contributed for their maintenance and upgrades this year.

The time has clearly come to renew America's water systems, and the funding for this challenge could lie in a familiar family of products--bottled water and soda. The bottled beverage industry is a major user and abuser of our nation's water. It takes nearly 29 billion gallons a year, often from municipal water supplies, to manufacture its products. A one-cent per ounce tax on manufacturers of these water-based beverages could raise nearly $35 billion toward fixing our nation's ailing water systems. It's only fair when you consider the enormous profits these industries reap from the systems we all rely on for a life-sustaining resource.

Many Americans agree.

A recent poll commissioned by Food & Water Watch and conducted by Lake Research Partners found that of the 1,000 U.S. residents polled, 63 percent thought that the bottled-beverage industry should help pay for improving public water.

Our nation's water systems are reaching a crisis point. Many of the pipes that comprise them were built around the same time that Henry Ford produced the first Model T. You wouldn't expect anyone to rely on a car that old for their daily transportation needs. Nor should we want the pipes that deliver our water to be equally outdated.

The time has come to stop giving the bottled-beverage a free ride. Instead, those companies need to help us transform our antiquated water infrastructure into the modernized system our communities deserve.

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Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch. She has worked extensively on energy, food, water and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans.

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