Aerial view of Great Barrington Water Treatment Plant (copy)

An aerial view of Great Barrington Water Treatment Plant.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump recently released a study that nicely captures several infrastructure challenges facing Western Massachusetts communities. We’d like to focus on an area not covered in her report that we feel is worth mentioning: water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure investments needed in this region (and across the commonwealth) and are significant.

In the report Public Infrastructure in Western Massachusetts: A Critical Need for Regional Investment and Revitalization, Auditor Bump references a 2017 study by her office documenting investments that would need to be made on water infrastructure across the state. Since that time, aging infrastructure continues to challenge our ability to reliably deliver these critical services. Additionally, adapting to a variety of new regulatory initiatives and addressing the adverse effects of climate change have become impactful. The cost of addressing these challenges and the financial impacts on our communities and their ratepayers needs to be revisited.

We know that in 2012, the Massachusetts Legislature released a report that cited an estimated $40 billion gap between investments that utilities in the commonwealth needed to make in water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure and available funding. In the intervening years, several new regulations and permits have been implemented that cause us to believe that the gap has only widened. For example, public water systems are now grappling with new regulations for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their water supply and some water systems and even private well owners are trying to find ways to fund expensive treatment systems to deal with this emerging contaminant. New attention on preventing combined sewer overflows and addressing nutrients entering our waterways also requires expensive solutions. The Springfield Water and Sewer Commission recently announced a capital improvement effort which will commit more than $500 million to infrastructure upgrades over the next six years, and even with that significant investment, there will still be more work to do.

Water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure is often out of sight and out of mind for most folks unless something happens to disrupt their service. Our utilities work hard to ensure residents and businesses have these essential services whenever they need them, but the reality is that most of this infrastructure is aged, and disruptions could be more common if we don’t begin investing in upgrades.

Reliable water and wastewater services are key to the quality of life we enjoy in the commonwealth and are vital to economic prosperity in our region. We must begin recognizing the value of these services and invest accordingly, but our utilities and their ratepayers cannot do it alone. We need the state and federal government to provide grants and subsidies to support the shared goals of continued protection of public health and a clean environment that everyone wants and deserves.

We hope that as conversations continue on infrastructure investment across the nation, we remember that infrastructure is more than roads, bridges, broadband and transit. Society would not be able to function without water and wastewater services, so let’s make sure it gets the attention it deserves.

Jennifer A. Pederson is the executive director of Massachusetts Water Works Association, a nonprofit based in Acton representing public water suppliers across the commonwealth. Joshua D. Schimmel is the executive director of Springfield Water & Sewer Commission, a utility serving 250,000 people in the Springfield area.