Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday January 7th, 2016, 4:25pm

Illinois Environmental, Labor Groups Highlight Economic Benefits Of Clean Water Projects

Every $1 billion invested in Chicago-area clean water infrastructure creates or saves an average of 11,200 total jobs and generates an 8 percent economic return over a year.

That's according to a new report, backed by the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) and the Sierra Club, that explores the economic and environmental benefits of local clean water projects, which the groups say are a "win-win-win for Illinois" because they help workers, the economy and the environment.

The report, prepared by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was formally recognized at Thursday's board meeting of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD).

Among the report's findings, MWRD and the city of Chicago's water management department created or saved a total of 19,400 jobs in 2014 and provided a nearly $2 billion boost to the region's economy through their respective "operations and construction expenditures."

"It is clear that we can't have a healthy economy without a healthy environment, which is what this agency is working on," MWRD Commissioner Debra Shore said at Thursday's meeting.

The report also draws attention to what it says is an underinvestment in Illinois clean water projects and the need for infrastructure repairs and improvements.

"Despite all the progress we have made, we have to continue investing in clean water infrastructure," ILEPI's policy director and report co-author Frank Manzo told Progress Illinois. "Every day that we hold off, the problem gets worse and the costs go up." 

The report, which says $36.5 billion would be needed over the next two decades to improve and expand Illinois' water systems, comes during the ongoing state budget impasse and as other local governments also grapple with fiscal challenges. 

"We know that all of our government agencies are stressed right now fiscally, and so people (are) really examining what investments really matter," Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club's Illinois Chapter, said in an interview. "What we're hoping to demonstrate is not only the health and environmental importance of this infrastructure but also the economic, and that if we want to have a healthy economy, we need to have clean water, but we also contribute to that by employing people to do it."

Manzo said clean water infrastructure projects create good, middle-class jobs that support the economy. The average blue-collar water infrastructure worker, for example, adds more than $162 per hour to the state's GDP, the report says. Additionally, the research shows that an Illinois worker's hourly wages increase an average of 10 percent upon employment in the water infrastructure sector.

"Every single year, the economic data shows that income inequality is widening, the middle class is being squeezed out and clean water infrastructure projects are a way to rebuild at least a portion of the middle class," Manzo said. 

Nutrient removal from wastewater discharges, invasive species control, green infrastructure projects and combined sewer overflow reduction are among the areas recommended in the report for future water infrastructure investments. 

"There are a lot of demands on our infrastructure," Darin said. "Across governments we have not done a very good job in investing in infrastructure in recent years due to the economy and due to different crises at levels of government. We need to remember that if we allow our existing water infrastructure to crumble, then we're gonna lose investments that generations have paid for, and we're not gonna be able to stand up to the next threats to our Great Lakes and to our Illinois rivers."

CFL's Bob Reiter discussed his organization's perspective on the issue during the meeting.

"What we try to do at the CFL is have a forward-looking approach to where our members are going to be down the road," he said. "And that means investing in jobs that our society needs.

"We need to invest in our future," Reiter added. "It's not just about driving the economy. It's driving the economy in a responsible way to make sure that we're taking care of our environment. And I can think of no better way to partner on a discussion about where this should occur than water infrastructure." 

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