One of the least discussed but most important elements of the Connect NC Bond package is the $309 million designated for clean water and sewer infrastructure. Demographers report that North Carolina is growing at the rate of about 100,000 people per year and these water and sewer bond monies are urgently needed for aging and inadequate municipal and county systems.
Nobody wants to encounter the water problems the citizens of Flint Michigan are currently experiencing but there are already warning signs that must not be ignored. The NC Department of Environmental Quality recently told a legislative Environmental Review Commission that 92 of the state’s 131 public water systems would fail one of the two thresholds which DHHS sets at 0.03 parts per billion (ppb) for vanadium and 0.07 ppb for hexavalent chromium. Granted, those standards are stringent but groundwater in North Carolina clearly contains evidence of metals present.
Many of our public water and sewer systems are owned and operated by small communities or regional cooperatives that frequently don’t charge users the full cost to sustain adequate maintenance, much less fund expansion. It’s not that they aren’t trying. In 2013, local governments reported $8 billion in debt for water and sewer systems, approximately one-fourth of their total debt. The state’s two largest municipalities owe one-third of that debt, but the debt per customer served is much greater in smaller local governments.
The last time our state provided significant help in matching grants and loans to public water systems was 1998. Widely accepted estimates place current needs at $16 billion and the North Carolina section of the American Society of Civil Engineers warns that replacement of aging infrastructure is the biggest issue for our state, saying, “The degradation of existing assets in this state is occurring to a point that is beyond a practical means to resolve them.”
We like to boast about the quality of life in North Carolina, but without safe and adequate water that boast is unfounded rhetoric. State and federal grants, combined with long-term debt borrowings, are the only sources of financing to ensure affordable infrastructure, especially in rural areas. In 2015, local governments requested $601 million for water and sewer grants and loans from state and federal funds, but only $218 was available to be awarded.
While the allocated $309 million contained in the Connect NC Bonds won’t come close to meeting current and future needs it is a positive step. The bond proceeds for water and sewer will be awarded to local systems through a competitive application process, but it is generally believed most of it will go to rural systems that can least afford the improvements.
The Connect NC bond package for infrastructure improvements to our public universities, community colleges, agriculture, parks and public safety are significant and will make positive investments in our state’s future. But even if you don’t agree with where and how the rest of the funds will be allocated, the health and safety of our state’s residents is too important to deny.
We should all be able to agree that the potential help to public water and sewer systems alone makes a “yes” vote on March 15th imperative.
Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of N.C. Spin.