Op-Ed: Now more than ever, Kentucky communities need flexibility to address critical water infrastructure needs

  • The following is an op-ed piece authored by Kentucky Chamber President and CEO Ashli Watts

    Much of the essential infrastructure we rely on every day to keep our homes, businesses and communities running is largely out of sight. Unless there is a major interruption to service, we often take for granted simple things like clean water coming out of our sinks.

    What we do not see is the tremendous amount of resources and investment required to maintain these vital services we depend upon and the importance to our economy.

    4.5 million Kentuckians are served by a network of more than 430 individual public water systems—70 percent of which are small, rural systems with fewer than 10,000 customers.

    In 2019, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) projected that communities across the Commonwealth face nearly $14.5 billion in water/wastewater infrastructure needs over the next two decades. This staggering figure includes more than $8.2 billion in drinking water system upgrades and over $6.2 billion in sewer system improvements, plus an additional $100 million in dam improvements in the near-term.

    For comparison, Kentucky’s entire General Fund budget is only around $12 billion annually.

    And then 2020 happened.

    Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the resources of Kentucky’s small communities have been stretched quite thin. State and local funds that could have gone to long-term infrastructure projects have been allocated elsewhere in response to the pandemic. And as we come out of the pandemic, the need for significant investment remains and is key to economic recovery.

    Creating and maintaining a 21st-century infrastructure is critical to fostering economic development and quality of life in our communities. While water infrastructure is far less visible than things like roads and bridges, it is no less important.

    Fortunately, a commonsense legislative solution exists that will address our aging water infrastructure and better position our communities for economic growth—and it does not require utilizing very limited state and local funds.

    House Bill 465 is an innovative solution that empowers local communities to do what is best for them when it comes to water infrastructure investment and provides a clear roadmap for municipalities to pursue mutually beneficial partnerships with professional water companies, all while opening the door for new investments and jobs in local communities at a time when they are needed most.

    The proposal does not force some universal fix to try and solve the diverse needs of aging water and sewer systems across all 120 different counties. It empowers local decision making to address local infrastructure needs, while providing a roadmap for those local communities that would be best served through a partnership with a professional water company.

    As we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, our communities would benefit from having an available avenue to pursue partnerships that might provide much-needed financial and administrative relief, while better positioning them for future economic development and job growth.

    Safe, reliable water and wastewater services are vital to making Kentucky the best place it can be to live, work, go to school and raise a family. And addressing our infrastructure needs now will ensure a brighter future for residents in every corner of the Commonwealth.

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