Our View: Finally, attention on long-neglected water needs

From the editorial: "There’s ample evidence, including (in Duluth), that America’s infrastructure — and water infrastructure, in particular — is in dire need of attention, investment, and reconstruction."

Pat Bagley/Cagle Cartoons

Look no further than Duluth’s 115 water main breaks over just the past 15 months.

Or the potentially hazardous joints made of lead and the 47 miles of lead water services that are still part of our city’s aging water system.

There’s ample evidence, including here, that America’s infrastructure — and water infrastructure, in particular — is in dire need of attention, investment, and reconstruction.

To address it, President Joe Biden has proposed spending an unprecedented $111 billion to modernize water pipes and other water-systems equipment nationwide over 10 years. Some of the decaying pipes date back centuries. His American Jobs Plan — floated a week and a half ago, on the last day of March — would invest a total of $2 trillion to rebuild and modernize all infrastructure, starting with fixing highways and bridges. There’s even $17 billion for inland waterways and ports, including, potentially and hopefully, the port of Duluth-Superior. Biden says he can pay for it all with steeper taxes on corporations.

The U.S. House is expected to introduce an infrastructure bill of its own in the coming months. And the Senate likely will take up the issue later this summer. So D.C. is soon to have a lot to deliberate.


While Biden’s opening move is ambitious, enormous, and prohibitively expensive, its consideration, with the others to come, demands to keep at its fore our too-long-overlooked and neglected water infrastructure. The needs there are great. Our attention in addressing those needs has historically been lacking.

That’s even though “water is essential to everything we do, to every community, business, and home in the United States,” as the U.S. Water Alliance, a longtime advocate for water-infrastructure investment, said in a March 31 statement in response to the president’s plan.

All Americans can agree with the alliance that “it is heartening to see water be prominently featured in (Biden’s) plan after years of water infrastructure being out of sight and out of mind.”

Infrastructure and water needs are particularly great around the Great Lakes, the governors of Minnesota (Tim Walz), Wisconsin (Tony Evers), Illinois (J.B. Pritzker), and Michigan (Gretchen Whitmer) were quick to argue in a letter to Biden late last month. They cited, specifically, dam failures and pollutants like PFAS in urging that, “It is time to think big.”

“Here in Minnesota, we know the power of the Great Lakes. Lake Superior is a vital part of our culture and economy,” Gov. Walz said in a statement. “(We) are committed to modernizing and building resilient, climate-conscious water infrastructure. We look forward to continued partnership with the Biden Administration on prioritizing bold water infrastructure investments.”

In Duluth, any funding from D.C. would build on the responsible actions of City Hall and Duluth voters in recent years to address our deteriorating infrastructure.

In 2017, voters overwhelmingly supported a half-percent sales tax to fix more streets and fill more potholes.

Also in 2017, the Duluth Public Utilities Commission raised water rates 4.7% per year for six years (which will result in a $6.75 monthly bill, on average, for Duluth homeowners) to responsibly repair and replace aging pipes and pumps and ensure our drinking water remains clean and safe.


In addition, last year, stormwater utility rates in Duluth were increased by 11.25% per year for six years (resulting in an average monthly bill of $12.80) to fix and replace failing pipes, culverts, catch basins, ditches, and tunnels that keep stormwater and spring snowmelt safely draining away from our homes and businesses, preventing flooding.

As for those ancient, lead-containing — and potentially lead-leaching — water pipes and joints that remain in Duluth’s water system: “The city is currently inventorying lead services … (that are) partially owned by (individual) homeowner(s) and partially owned by the city,” City Hall spokeswoman Kate Van Daele told the News Tribune Opinion page last week.

No one likes to pay more, especially for something as unseen and as unsexy as infrastructure. But investing to keep pace with needs is the right thing to do.

Our water infrastructure, in particular, neglected for far too long, deserves the attention it’s suddenly getting from Capitol Hill — and has been receiving in recent years from Duluth City Hall.

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