Upgrading water systems can reduce pollution – and put nearly 1.9 million people to work

Authors: Green For All  
Read the Executive Summary
Want to create nearly 1.9 million American jobs and add $265 billion to the economy? Upgrade our water and wastewater infrastructure. That’s the message of a new report released today by Green For All, in partnership with American Rivers, the Economic Policy Institute and the Pacific Institute. Every year, sewage overflows dump 860 billion gallons of raw sewage into our water systems – enough to cover the entire state of Pennsylvania with waste one-inch deep. But investment in our nation’s infrastructure to handle stormwater and wastewater has lagged, falling by one-third since its 1975 peak. The report, Water Works: Rebuilding Infrastructure, Creating Jobs, Greening the Environment, looks at an investment of $188.4 billion in water infrastructure – the amount the Environmental Protection Agency indicates would be required to manage stormwater and preserve water quality. That investment would inject a quarter of a trillion dollars into the economy, create nearly 1.3 million direct and indirect jobs in related sectors and result in 568,000 additional jobs from increased spending.

This report estimates the economic and job creation impact of a major investment in water infrastructure in the United States. This number—$188.4 billion—is based on the level of investment necessary, as estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency, to manage stormwater and preserve water quality across the country. We find that an investment of $188.4 billion spread equally over the next five years would generate $265.6 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs. We argue that maximizing the use of green infrastructure—infrastructure that mimics natural solutions—is essential to meet the stormwater management needs of our communities while also providing a number of additional co-benefits. We provide job creation estimates for each of the 50 states and review the workforce opportunities that would result from such an investment, analyzing a representative set of occupations in industries related to water infrastructure. We find that new jobs generated by these investments could be good jobs that are broadly accessible to American workers. Water Works examines why a significant level of investment in water infrastructure and, in particular, stormwater infrastructure, is so necessary right now. It reviews evidence of a water and wastewater infrastructure in the U.S. that is outdated, overextended, and in crisis. We find that our decaying water infrastructure pollutes our waters, sickens our children, and wastes natural resources. Every year, sewer overflows contaminate U.S. waters with 860 billion gallons of untreated sewage, an amount that could fill 1.3 million Olympic- size swimming pools or cover the entire state of Pennsylvania with one inch of sewage. This sewage contains pathogens such as bacteria, parasites, and viruses, as well as pharmaceuticals, synthetic hormones, and personal care products. As our water infrastructure deteriorates, we also find that investment is not keeping pace. Total public investment in water infrastructure as a share of the economy is estimated to have fallen by over one-third since peak levels of investment in 1975. As new challenges emerge and systems deteriorate further, we are seeing a growing gap between our clean water needs and annual investment. In this report, we argue that the decline in America’s water infrastructure, and its associated economic, health and environmental costs, must be reversed. To achieve this reversal will require significant new investments that ensure the highest return possible and provide a multitude of benefits to our communities. This kind of strategic approach requires not only making traditional infrastructure upgrades but also pursuing new approaches, in particular green infrastructure techniques. Although an increasing number of cities are implementing green infrastructure strategies, these opportunities have not been realized as extensively as their multiple benefits warrant. Water Works examines why now is best time in a generation to tackle our water infrastructure investment gap, for three key reasons: (1) Water infrastructure investments would create jobs now, when they are most needed; (2) The cost of financing this investment is at historic lows; and (3) The current economic climate can reduce the costs of infrastructure projects. The report also provides analysis demonstrating that investments in water and other infrastructure are one of the most efficient methods of job creation in the current economy, particularly when compared to other policy prescriptions that often claim the political center stage. Infrastructure investments create over 16 percent more jobs dollar-for-dollar than a payroll tax holiday, nearly 40 percent more jobs than an across-the-board tax cut, and over five times as many jobs as temporary business tax cuts. Water Works analyzes the quality and accessibility of jobs created by an investment in water infrastructure. We find that most of these occupations do not require high levels of formal education, but rather typically require a high school degree plus some post-secondary education or training. We argue that this labor market dynamic provides an important opportunity to counteract income inequality, by opening up job opportunities with family-supporting wages for “middle-skilled” workers, including low-income people and people of color who have struggled during the current recession. However, women and people of color are under-represented in many of these occupations, highlighting the need to couple investments in water infrastructure with an economic development strategy to build a society characterized by environmental sustainability and shared prosperity.. This “high road” approach, which we detail in the report’s conclusion, creates family-sustaining jobs, access to economic opportunities for diverse businesses and workers, and supports quality training programs that connect workers to career pathways. Finally, as cities and municipalities prepare to make these critical investments, we offer guidance in the form of three criteria to ensure a sustainable water future. We conclude that in order to have maximum impact these investments must (1) Create accessible and quality jobs; (2) Maximize environmental gain; and (3) Use financing that is stable, fair, and scalable.


The report also notes that this is the best moment to make the investment. With the recession creating a shortfall of 11.1 million jobs (that would be otherwise be enough to keep pace with the population growth) and with 9.1% unemployment, these are jobs that are critically needed. Moreover, the cost of financing these essential upgrades is at historic lows, and the still-struggling economy means much cheaper construction costs. "Cleaning our environment and putting people to work has always been the value proposition of the green economy," said Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of Green For All. "This report demonstrates that there’s a massive opportunity to ensure clean water, improve the economy, and put people – particularly low-income workers – back to work."

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