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Want to Create 2 Million Jobs? Invest in Water Infrastructure

J. Mijin Cha

As we celebrate the anniversary of the Clean Water Act, we should also focus on how to increase the number of waterways that are clean enough for fishing or swimming. As we wrote earlier this week, the CWA doesn’t cover nonpoint sources of pollution, which is caused by rain or snowmelt runoff that carries wastes into bodies of water. Nonpoint sources of pollution are thought to now be the leading cause of poor water quality and are the primary reason 40 percent of our waterways are too polluted for swimming or fishing.

Compounding inadequate regulations, decades of underinvestment has left our water infrastructure crumbling and increasingly unable to keep our water supplies safe. In New York City alone, there are roughly 600 water main breaks a year. The nation’s water infrastructure is so bad that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a D- rating. To fix the problem, the EPA estimates an investment of over $188 billion is needed over the next five years. This may seem like a lot of money, but it is only a fraction of the $700 billion ponied up for the bank bailout.

Investing this money to upgrade and repair our water infrastructure will create a substantial number of jobs. A joint report from Green for All, the Economic Policy Institute, and American Rivers found that a $188.4 billion investment would create 2 million jobs and generate over $265 billion in economic activity. The report verifies what we already knew: investment, not tax cuts, creates jobs. In particular, infrastructure investments create:

  •  More than 16 percent more jobs dollar for dollar than a payroll tax holiday
  •  Nearly 40 percent more jobs than an across-the-board tax cut,
  •  Over five time as many jobs as temporary business tax cuts.

What's more, investing in infrastructures means jobs for construction workers, who have the highest unemployment of any group of workers -- around 12 percent. In contrast, other forms of stimulus are less precisely targeted at those who are hurting the most.

Investing in our water infrastructure will also result in significant health savings. Each year, 860 billion gallons is released from sewer overflows -- the same amount that could cover the entire state of Pennsylvania with one inch of sewage. The sewage contains a host of pollutants that make people sick, including bacteria, pathogens, and viruses.

We can either start investing in our infrastructure, creating jobs and economic activity, or keep letting the sewage spew freely. I think the choice is pretty clear.