Column: Rio Shows Why Investing in Clean Water Is Necessary

Column: Rio Shows Why Investing in Clean Water Is Necessary

Commentary–Alexandria Renew Enterprises

Recently, U.S. Olympic marathon swimmer Haley Anderson discussed with NPR her 6.2-mile open-water swim off Copacabana Beach at the Rio games. One point of discussion: swimming for more than two hours in heavily polluted water during which Anderson expected to swallow several mouthfuls of water.

To host the Olympics, Rio pledged collect and treat 80 percent of its overall sewage. Because of this failed promise, some 1,400 athletes were at risk of becoming ill from contact with contaminated water according to an Associated Press study. Levels of disease-causing microbes are so high, swallowing just three teaspoons of water could cause illness.

While this sounds extreme, the Potomac River was in similar shape just 60 years ago. The river was considered a national disgrace and contained one gallon of disease-laden sewage for every six gallons of water.

Fortunately, the Potomac is in significantly better shape today. Just this March, the Potomac Conservatory gave the river its highest grade ever as part of its annual report card. The region’s wastewater utilities, including AlexRenew, have played an instrumental role in bringing the Potomac’s water quality to its highest level in several generations.

Our investments in infrastructure allow us to protect public health and the environment because they enable us to clean about 35 million gallons of dirty water every day. In Alexandria alone, we’ve invested almost $900 million in our city’s clean water infrastructure — that is $2,768 per customer served by AlexRenew. As we face new challenges — increasingly strict regulations, aging infrastructure, and a swelling population — this is an investment we will need to continue in the years to come.

For these reasons, AlexRenew’s board of directors — volunteers appointed by City Council who live in Alexandria and pay an AlexRenew bill — propose a 1.5 percent annual increase in our overall revenue over each of the next two years starting Oct. 1, 2016.

For typical Alexandria residents, this would mean a $.61 increase on their monthly bill. This increase, which is less than half the cost of a small Starbucks coffee, ensures that we have the financial foundation to enable people and infrastructure to clean wastewater from Alexandria and parts of Fairfax County in the most sustainable, efficient, and innovative ways possible.

When considering any potential rate increase, our board examines and considers our city’s infrastructure needs for the next 20 years. Planning our investments in advance enables us to be financially sustainable because it prepares us for necessary capital projects. The fact that our rate increases have been relatively modest and consistent over the years is a testament to our ability to anticipate Alexandria’s future needs.

Part of AlexRenew’s 2040 Vision is to enable local citizens the opportunity to establish a personal connection with local waterways so that we can eat local fish and swim in local streams. As I watch the Rio games, I’m reminded just how far we’ve come toward this goal in the past 60 years.

You can learn more about the proposed rate increase at AlexRenew also will hold a public rate hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. in its Environmental Center at 1800 Limerick St., Alexandria.