An Open Letter to President Biden on Water
Dear President Biden:
Congratulations on your election, and on starting your term with a strong commitment to infrastructure, which you outlined during the campaign in your Build Back Better platform.
We in the water industry are certainly eager to build back better. You are our republic's 46th president, following in the footsteps of several presidential leaders in infrastructure development and many others who neglected the foundation that has made our country great. Whether it was the 19th century boom in private water systems that began under President Jefferson, the U.S. Public Health Service Drinking Water Standards established under President Wilson, or the massive dam projects under President Roosevelt, we are still enjoying the benefits of attention to our water infrastructure.
However, some of the fingerprints of our past presidents are a little too closely associated with our current situation. Former head of DC Water George Hawkins shared a story on the Water We Talking About? podcast I host with Adam Tank. As a resident of the District at the time, you may remember the situation: when a DC Water crew excavated a broken water main under McArthur Boulevard northeast DC in 2017, they found Montgomery Meigs' name stamped into the broken pipe. That's the same Montgomery Meigs who supervised the construction of the Capitol and the Washington Aqueduct in the 1850s, then served as President Lincoln's quartermaster general during the Civil War.
That pipe belongs in the Smithsonian, not under it.
With examples like this highlighting our nation's inheritance of heirloom plumbing, it's not news that the U.S. water infrastructure has earned a steady D average over the past couple of decades in the grades conferred by the American Society of Civil Engineers. If kids came home with Ds on their report cards for 20 years, I would certainly worry about their future.
At no time in American history has there been a bigger need—or a bigger opportunity—to fix America's water infrastructure. In this socially and politically divided era, we are all still unified by our need for water. Water bridges our rural and urban communities, tying us together through aquifers and reservoirs, linking our fortunes in the commerce and energy that flow down our rivers, binding us together in the need for the clean water supplies and careful wastewater treatment that make our national health truly universal.
In addition to righting the wrongs plaguing the drinking water systems of neglected cities like Flint and Detroit, we can support the far-flung heroes who are helping keep America's small towns and farms safe and productive through underfunded and highly resourceful rural water districts. We can create good, well-paying jobs that rebuild our country literally and figuratively.
In the case of many water districts and lock systems, we would be picking up where FDR's Works Progress Administration left off—updating Depression-era infrastructure projects that are desperately in need of a boost, applying American muscle to our need for all that water delivers to us, and applying American ingenuity to meet the growing needs of our population with our shrinking supply.
You've appointed the outstanding water advocate and expert Radhika Fox to be undersecretary of the EPA in charge of the Office of Water. You've primed the pump for infrastructure improvements ranging from clean drinking water to improved transportation. With water at the top of EPA's agenda and at the forefront of Build Back Better, we would be edging closer to JFK's adage, "Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes—one for peace and one for science."
Now is the time for both peace and science, for jobs and achievement. Now is the time, to paraphrase President Kennedy again, for America's rising tide to lift all boats.