Long ignored, water systems are getting attention on Hill

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the COVID-19 pandemic made water infrastructure a higher priority for lawmakers

Vivian Simpson offered directions to a water distribution area in Flint, Mich., in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Vivian Simpson offered directions to a water distribution area in Flint, Mich., in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 17, 2021 at 7:00am

For years, lawmakers bemoaned crumbling roads and bridges while wastewater and drinking water infrastructure crumbled largely outside the spotlight. 

Faced with outdated infrastructure and mounting federal requirements, water utilities struggled, often forced to pass the costs on to ratepayers ill-equipped to pay rapidly growing bills. And while the federal government offered aid to low-income Americans for heating assistance and food, there was no such federal aid for water bills, although utilities were reluctant to turn off the spigot.

The federal message to those facing water shutoffs was loud and clear: You’re on your own.

But the 2016 water crisis in Flint, Mich., and the COVID-19 pandemic changed the equation. Now, water utilities are bullish after a series of legislative wins has helped them meet increasingly crucial needs. 

“You notice when the electricity goes off, and you notice if the water doesn’t work,” said David Denard, director of environmental services for Jefferson County, Ala. “But you don’t necessarily notice when you have issues with your sewer systems, because it’s all buried. It’s not like a road, where you have potholes to drive across or dodge. … We feel like we’re doing our job when people don’t notice us. And there’s a good and a bad part to that.”

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Congress in December included $638 million in assistance for low-income water customers and water and sewer investments in its end-of-year appropriations act, then approved another $500 million for that in its $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.

“In just a few months it went from being this moon shot to $1.13 billion,” said David Zielonka, a spokesman for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

The latter bill also explicitly designated parts of the $350 billion in the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds for water and sewer systems, a development that made groups advocating for those utilities positively giddy at the potential for federal resources.

Legislation

Water utility operators say they hope to be included in an upcoming infrastructure package that is said to be next on the agenda for congressional Democrats and the Biden administration.

And on Tuesday, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee Chairwoman Grace F. Napolitano, D-Calif., and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., introduced a bill that would authorize $50 billion in direct infrastructure investment over five years. The bill would increase spending authorized through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which has not been reauthorized by Congress since it was created in 1987.

That bill would allow $40 billion in spending specifically for infrastructure through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and offer $10 billion in other grants to help improve wastewater infrastructure. Separately, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has scheduled a Wednesday hearing on drinking water and wastewater priorities.

That lawmakers are beginning to prioritize such aid, wastewater infrastructure advocates say, is an outgrowth of the coronavirus pandemic. The need for personal hygiene was seen as key to helping prevent the spread of the virus, making clear the role that water infrastructure plays in protecting public health and the environment. 

Groups like the National Association of Clean Water Agencies say the aid in particular for low-income water customers was a game-changer. Before December, there had never been a federal water assistance program like there is for food or energy.

“This makes clear that Congress recognizes the critical role of public drinking water and clean water services and the increased strain many households are facing in paying their water bills as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic downturn,” National Association of Clean Water Agencies CEO Adam Krantz said in a joint statement with Diane VanDe Hei, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

The 1972 Clean Water Act aimed to protect Americans’ source of clean water and came with more than $61 billion in grants to communities to upgrade their systems. But the financial resources to enforce that bill trickled away over time, and in 1988 the Congress changed the act by replacing the grant program with the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a loan program that remains in place to this day.

Climate change

Climate change, with its associated flooding events, has exacerbated the problem. 

According to the most recent U.S. EPA Water Needs Survey, states say they need to spend $271 billion for wastewater systems over the next 20 years — that’s almost $14 billion annually. But the federal government spent only $1.6 billion in fiscal 2021 for wastewater infrastructure, DeFazio said during a recent hearing on water rates. 

That survey was released in 2012, nearly a decade before the pandemic and years before some of the results of climate change became evident.

“At our current rate of federal investment, it will take us almost 170 years just to address existing wastewater infrastructure needs, and that doesn’t include investments to address the challenges posed by climate change, extreme weather events and the resilience of our water utilities,” DeFazio said.

An infrastructure bill that passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate proposed $40 billion in federal investment in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to help address the backlog in clean water needs. It also would have established minimum allocations for rural and small communities for water infrastructure investment, he said.

Denard said he’s hopeful a future infrastructure bill might help address that backlog. He said he’d like to see Congress reauthorize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

But, he said, “one of the biggest things we want to see is direct funds.” The state revolving fund is a loan, and some communities really need direct assistance.

Utilities are struggling to meet the federal requirements and not pass on costs to ratepayers, he said.

“When you have to have the conversation with somebody making the decision to buy their prescription drug or pay the water bill, that’s a hard conversation to have,” he said.