WASHINGTON — The saying, “pay me now or pay me later,” has become a cliché but it’s true. America’s water infrastructure is in bad shape and the country needs to spend billions of dollars now to avoid paying trillions of dollars later dealing with crises.

That was the message presented to industry luminaries at the Plumbing Industry Leadership Coalition, an annual gathering of everyone who’s important in the plumbing industry. For the second year in a row, the National Institute of Building Sciences here played host to organizations representing contractors, wholesalers, manufacturers, engineers, labor, code bodies, water quality, inspectors and water utilities.

Barb Higgens, executive director of Plumbing Manufacturers International, kicked off the session by listing PILC’s main priorities: improving the image of the plumbing industry, recruitment and maximizing water efficiency. Manufacturers are under a lot of pressure to reduce flow rates of future products, said Higgens, speaking by speakerphone from Florida where she was taking care of family business. Manufacturers are considering how much lower they can go without compromising product safety and performance, Higgens said. It may be time, she noted, to explore options such as influencing consumer behavior or working to accelerate retrofits of existing plumbing products.

Attendees received a bad news-good news-bad news message from Brian T. Pallasch, managing director, government relations & infrastructure initiatives, American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, Va. The bad news is that America’s water infrastructure is in bad shape. The good news is that it could mean a lot of work for the industry to fix it. The bad news is that there’s no political will to get the job done.

Every four years ASCE releases a report on infrastructure. Much of the focus in the general media on the ASCE report is on surface transportation. In fact, at the time of the PILC meeting, the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge near Seattle was in the news. Pallasch’s focus, however, was on water. (He noted that the entire report is available as an app from the Apple App Store. Search for American Society of Civil Engineers and look for “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The report may also be found at http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/).

ASCE has put out the Report Card since 1998. In 2013 the GPA had improved modestly from D to D+. Most sectors are not seeing the proper level of investment to improve performance. Two categories, levees and inland waterways, are near the failure point. Six sectors saw improvement, including roads and bridges. Solid waste is a B-.

If we invested an additional $157 billion a year — that’s on all infrastructure — through 2020, we can prevent all sort of other crisis costs, such as a $3.1 trillion loss to GDP, a $1.1 trillion loss in trade, and a $2.4 trillion loss in consumer spending. Pallasch pointed out that the I-5 bridge collapse occurred on a major trade route between the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and will result in a significant amount of lost business.

Wastewater and drinking water has benefited from short-term federal spending, but the nation still needs $3.6 trillion between now and 2020. Current funding only covers one third of total needs, Pallasch said, and that’s assuming that we’ll get to a grade of B, not an A. ASCE bases its funding numbers from four studies, and the Society’s projections go out to 2020, unlike an Environmental Protection Agency report that makes funding projections out to 2030.

Drinking water earned a grade of D. Water mains break at a pace of 240,000 a year, 650 a day. We’ll never get to zero but we should get the number below 650. We’re losing clean, potable water every day that we already paid for. The quality of America’s drinking water remains high, but the pipes and mains are old, some as old as the Civil War era. Currently we’re replacing 5,000 miles of pipe a year, but we’ll need to step that up to 20,000 miles per year by 2035.

The grade for wastewater to a D. The nation needs a capital investment of $298 billion over next 20 years. Pallasch noted that EPA will issue a new report on wastewater by next year. Storm water needs, while growing, are small compared to pipes and treatment plants. Most of need is in pipes as the treatment plants have been keeping up the pace.

Bad water infrastructure has real economic costs, Pallasch said. A company may not locate in some areas if the water infrastructure is inadequate. A water main break takes and average of eight hours to repair; that might mean that an office building has to empty out for a day.

Pallasch said that the penalty costs to businesses are $147 billion. Costs to households are $59 billion, about $900 per household. Potential job losses are 700,000 between now and 2020, personal income would be reduced by $541 billion, GDPO would contract by $16 billion, and exports would decline by $6 billion.

So what can be done? Funding for water comes from multiple sources, and 90% of the money is local. State Revolving Loan Funds have not been authorized for the last 14 years. Senate Bill 335: “Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2013,” will likely not going anywhere in the House of Representatives. Some other ways to pay for water infrastructure include public-private partnerships, eliminating the caps on private activity bonds, and establishing a National Infrastructure Bank that local governments could tap into. The National Infrastructure Bank would be a dedicated source of money, analogous to the gas tax that pays for highway work, which could only be used for water projects.

Pallasch said that the water industry, including everyone in the PILC meeting, would have to do three things: find the proper leadership at all levels of government and in the private sector to promote the idea that a strong infrastructure makes for a strong economy. Second, promote idea of sustainability and resilience. Resilience means that if you have, for example, a hurricane, how quickly can the infrastructure bounce back? Third, develop a way to come up with the money to pay for this.

Dain Hansen, director of government relations for the International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials, was asked why Congress won’t act even though the arithmetic is compelling in that it’s better to spend billions now rather than trillions later managing crises. Hansen replied that the Tea Party has such a stranglehold on the House of Representatives that they won’t spend money even if it makes sense.

Pete DeMarco, senior director of special programs for IAPMO, proposed that Hansen and PMI’s top lobbyist, Stephanie Salmon of Artemis Strategies, put together a white paper talking about infrastructure bills in the Senate and asking for help and for feedback. The strategy would be to go to everyone with a stake in water and have them gang up on Congress. That gang would include governors, the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, National Conference of Mayors, water utilities, civil engineers, labor, business groups and the plumbing industry. Any locale suffering from drought should be receptive. Perhaps then the effort can reach critical mass.