Gere: The case for investing in our water infrastructure
An aerial view of San Jose's regional wastewater treatment plant is pictured in this file photo

Infrastructure is rightly enjoying its spot in the national limelight these days, with the Biden Administration busily unveiling its plans. However, being well intentioned is as important as being pragmatic. After all, the warning signs have been there for all to see when it comes to lack of investment in infrastructure—impacting communities from Los Gatos to Washington, D.C.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure outlines the condition and performance of American infrastructure. This year, it deemed infrastructure worthy of a C-. Better than the previous year, but clearly a long way to go.

In this current economic climate, we need to look at infrastructure as an investment that will offer us a return over time. To obtain a return, we must think broadly.

Water infrastructure is a critical issue affecting all Americans.

For many, the term “infrastructure” brings to mind bridges, broadband and highways. In the water industry, infrastructure often goes unseen. It’s the pipes and pumps that transport water; the reservoirs which store water; and the water treatment plants which guarantee that healthy, safe water arrives at customers’ homes.

A safe and reliable water delivery system is essential to hygiene and public safety, in addition to supporting fire protection and economic vibrancy. At San Jose Water, we know that our investment in water infrastructure creates jobs locally—helping to ensure resiliency and reliability for generations to come.

This past year, our nation faced many unique ordeals—from COVID-19 to devastating wildfires and the Texas power crisis. The need to protect public health and safety is crucial as we continue to work and live through the pandemic and other challenges stemming from water quality and climate change.

As a 155-year old company with deep roots in Silicon Valley, making sure that our customers have safe, clean and reliable water service means that our water system must be maintained and upgraded as time goes by. In our approximately 140-square-mile service area, there are 2,400 miles of water mains, 106 tanks and reservoirs, 20,143 hydrants and 35,143 valves—a lot of infrastructure to maintain.

San Jose Water invests almost $120 million annually in new and replacement infrastructure to ensure we can safely and efficiently serve customers today and for the next 100 years. Completing projects such as the Belgatos Station Tank Project, which stores up to 9.5 million gallons of potable water and serves approximately 84,000 people in the San Jose Water service area, is a key example of this.

We have proposed a $435 million capital budget over the next three years to spend on water infrastructure, including replacing approximately 75 miles of water mains. This is included in the General Rate Case we filed recently with the California Public Utilities Commission.

As we’ve increasingly come to appreciate during the pandemic, water is an essential service. We consider our colleagues in the field essential workers. That’s why at San Jose Water, we don’t just see ourselves as a utility in the water business: we view water as a public health matter.

If you think about infrastructure as a building block of public policy, water is one of the most vital components. The State Water Resources Control Board this month released its first-ever drinking water needs assessment, showing that in California there is an estimated $4.6 billion funding gap for the water system infrastructure necessary to ensure Californians have access to safe and affordable drinking water.

Our public health is directly affected by water infrastructure. When it’s working well, it provides us with safe drinking water and keeps pollution at bay. If water infrastructure is not maintained, water can be contaminated—hurting vast numbers of people. Under-investment can lead to a crisis, as we have seen in many states throughout the US. Prioritizing this is critical. Much of what we invest in is reliability and continuous service.

Getting it right for both current and future generations is something that we can all rally around.

Andy Gere is president and chief operating officer of San Jose Water.

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