Stimulus dollars should be used to fix our water problems

    The budget repair bill/stimulus package that was rammed through the state Legislature and quickly signed into law was ideally supposed to create jobs. Instead, state lawmakers opted to take the gigantic pot from Washington and use it to account for existing spending by offsetting the current budget crisis.

    It is hard to imagine the package approved will actually "stimulate" the state economy and bring new jobs when the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the majority of Wisconsin’s "stimulus" share, about $2 billion, is going toward education and medical assistance.

    If we can’t use the stimulus money in ways that would actually stimulate the economy, then it should be used on infrastructure. The stimulus money should be used on one-time projects or on projects with a life long enough that they’re almost one-time. Here’s an example: Waste water runoff problems on Lake Michigan.

    The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) prepares a report card that assesses 15 separate categories of the country’s infrastructure. The 2009 Report Card reports, "In 2009, all signs point to an infrastructure that is poorly maintained, unable to meet current and future demands, and in some cases, unsafe. Since the last Report Card in 2005, the grades have not improved. ASCE estimates the nation still stands at a D average. Deteriorating conditions and inflation have added hundreds of billions to the total cost of repairs and needed upgrades." The categories of drinking water and wastewater receive a grade of D-.

    The ASCE says the nation’s drinking water systems have aging facilities in need of replacement to adhere to federal water regulations. Demand for drinking water will increase over the next 20 years. Meeting the demand will be difficult because the ASCE estimates 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water are lost every day due to leaky pipes.

    The same holds true for wastewater. The ASCE says every year, old systems are dumping billions of gallons of untreated wastewater into America’s surface waters.

    Out of all the categories examined by the ASCE, Wisconsin ranked the worst in roads, drinking water and wastewater. We need to invest in what we are failing the worst at and that is concretely fixable with a return in health, efficiency, and effectiveness for all the residents of Wisconsin.

    We in Wisconsin are all too familiar with water problems. Our water in various areas of the state is questionably unsafe. Uncontrollable contamination of Lake Michigan is profoundly reckless. 

    On Oct. 7, 2004, Water & Wastes Digest reported a stunning discovery about the quality of drinking water in La Crosse: "Prior to its chlorination, viruses from human sources occur in the La Crosse, Wis., groundwater used for the municipal drinking water supply, a new report revealed. Although the city’s treated water meets or exceeds state and federal standards for drinking water, researchers and public health officials agree that more study is needed to pinpoint the exact sources of the viruses and to determine if some viruses are surviving the chlorination process. The study found interoviruses, rotavirus, hepatitis A virus and noroviruses. La Crosse’s source of water is an aquifer consisting of a deposit of glacial outwash sand and gravel approximately 170 feet deep, bounded on the east by the bluffs and on the west by the Mississippi River. Sand and gravel aquifers are among the most vulnerable to fecal contamination."

    The 2003 ASCE Report Card on Infrastructure commended Wisconsin for how it handles municipal wastewater. However, the ASCE added this conclusion: "Yet much remains to be done to maintain or enhance this position as a leader in the United States. Significant investments in this infrastructure will be required to maintain this position and to address pending and likely future regulations and requirements."

    The same 2003 ASCE Report Card reported this about Wisconsin’s municipal wastewater treatment plants: "In year 2000, 19 plants, about 2.8%, were rated as requiring improvements and 131 plants, about 19.5 percent, were rated as requiring some action. Estimated future needs through 2020 exceed $3.35 billion, while actual project funding has been less than $100 million per year."

    That brings us back to the state stimulus package that was approved in just a matter of days. Note the ASCE pinpointed the cost of addressing future wastewater needs at $3.35 billion. The state of Wisconsin expects to receive just under $4 billion in stimulus money from Washington. A better use of that money would be to invest in what we are failing at the worst and that is concretely fixable. The benefit is a return in health, efficiency, and effectiveness for all the residents of Wisconsin.

    The damage being done in Milwaukee does not only affect Milwaukee, but the entire state of Wisconsin.  When compared to all other states, we are failing the citizens of Wisconsin in providing access to clean safe drinking water and a safe waste disposal system more than any other infrastructure/education/health care category.

    The federal stimulus package is an opportunity for us to create jobs, give every state access to safe drinking water and build a future in our most valuable resources by fixing our water and sewage system. Think about it. We can fix our water safety, preserve a coveted resource, reduce unemployment and repair our infrastructure. That is how we should be investing our stimulus package: in our water and sewage system.


    State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents Wisconsin’s 28th District.

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