As recently as the 1960s and early 70s, when residents of places like Tower or Ely flushed their toilets, the waste found its way, more or less untreated, into Shagawa Lake or Lake Vermilion, prompting huge blooms of algae that made life at the lake unpleasant at times. Those days are supposed to be behind us, thanks in large part to stricter environmental laws and a significant federal investment that allowed small communities around the U.S. to upgrade their wastewater treatment facilities.
As those facilities age, many communities in our region have tapped those federal resources again and again in recent decades to expand and improve wastewater treatment facilities, to replace aging sewer lines and mains, and to upgrade and improve drinking water quality as well. We report on those upgrades and the federal funding that routinely plays a critical role in financing such projects.
Yet if President Trump has his way, that federal funding would disappear. Among the plethora of penny-wise and pound-foolish cuts proposed by the administration, the proposal to effectively zero out USDA Rural Development’s Water and Wastewater grant and loan program is among the worst.
The roughly $500 million in annual funding for this program is specifically earmarked for communities with populations under 10,000. These are places where local resources are often inadequate to pay the full cost of maintaining and eventually replacing water and wastewater infrastructure, and the federal Rural Development dollars routinely provide communities in our region with critical grants and low-interest loans that allow small communities to maintain clean water in their taps as well as their lakes and streams, without forcing residents to pay exorbitant fees.
This program should receive far more funding, but the Trump administration is proposing elimination of the program, arguing that private funding sources can meet the need. There is no question that massive amounts of largely unproductive private dollars are in the hands of the nation’s wealthy. And Trump has made it clear he is hoping to leverage some of those dollars to invest in America’s infrastructure.
Yet what the Trump administration is really talking about is not public-spirited private investment in public infrastructure, it’s privatization, period. Without the federal dollars to maintain and upgrade their water and wastewater infrastructure, small communities would ultimately be left with few alternatives to privatization. Under this vision for the future, private investors would take ownership of a community’s water and wastewater infrastructure with the promise that they would maintain it for the right to charge its users. Such arrangements have a decidedly mixed record around the world, often leaving residents at the mercy of investors who are merely seeking the highest possible return. That means higher water and sewer rates and the usual private sector reluctance to improve service quality when they have a captive market. Just look at your local cable company, for example.
With a city-owned service, the mayor drinks the same water you do and his kids swim in the same lake. Do you think the investment fund executive on Wall Street who might control your sewer and water in the future cares one iota about the quality of the water you and your children drink or what your wastewater is doing to the lake you enjoy?
Trump wants to double-down on an unfortunate political trend in America— borrowing to pay for the things we used to obtain through taxation. Back in the 1950s and 60s, when America was investing in its future, top marginal tax rates on the wealthiest Americans ranged from 70-92 percent, depending on the year. We used the revenue those taxes generated to build interstate freeways, educate the baby boom, and, by the 1970s, to upgrade our water and sewer infrastructure even in the smallest and poorest communities.
Today, the wealthy pay a tiny fraction of their former tax bills, and the government borrows the money, at interest, instead. And now, rather than invest in America’s infrastructure, Trump wants to sell it off to wealthy investors, so they can charge us exorbitant rates for the privilege of flushing the toilet. That’s a bad deal for the public, and Congress should reject it for the foolish proposal that it is.