Bipartisan agreement on need for water upgrade, but not on cost

A big question about Biden's proposal to update drinking water systems is whether $111 billion price tag is too high for Republicans

Democrats Charles E. Schumer of New York with Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan at a 2016 news conference about the Flint, Mich., water crisis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats Charles E. Schumer of New York with Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan at a 2016 news conference about the Flint, Mich., water crisis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 1, 2021 at 11:15am

When lawmakers begin in earnest to consider President Joe Biden’s expansive $2 trillion infrastructure plan, one area of bipartisan agreement may be its call for upgrading drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. 

The biggest question, however, is whether the ambitious $111 billion Biden calls for is too high a price tag for Republicans

Republican lawmakers were publicly quiet Wednesday about the water section of the proposal, reserving their criticism for the overall package and tax hikes. But privately, they expressed pessimism that the ambitious water investment would pass muster in an already mammoth proposal. 

Biden’s plan proposes a $111 billion investment in improving drinking water infrastructure and replacing lead service lines over eight years, including $45 billion in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grants. 

The $45 billion would help eliminate lead pipes and service lines serving what the administration estimates is between 6 million and 10 million homes, as well 400,000 schools and childcare facilities.  

[Long ignored, water systems are getting attention on Hill]

Biden also proposed upgrading drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems by increasing the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to $56 billion. 

Finally, the Biden plan includes $10 billion in funding to monitor and remediate PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in drinking water, as well as to improve small rural water systems and household wells and wastewater systems.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its most recent report card on the nation’s infrastructure, gave drinking water a C-minus. It gave wastewater a D-plus. Some underground pipes date to the 1800s, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife, recalls one colleague telling her that he had wood pipes still in use in his district. 

“I don’t think it would be responsible for us to put forward an infrastructure package without water infrastructure,” Duckworth said in an interview last week. “To fix the roads and then come back two years later to dig up the sewer system would be a real waste of taxpayer dollars.” 

Flint's impact

Karen Weaver, a former mayor of Flint, Mich., who is now the interim executive director of the African American Mayors Association, praised the proposal, saying she was hopeful the federal government had learned from the lead water crisis in Flint. She was mayor from 2015 through 2019, a period when some 100,000 residents of her city were exposed to elevated lead levels. 

“It wasn’t just about Flint,” she said. “We were a poster child for so many other places around the country. ... To see this in there makes me feel good. It really does.” 

While there’s theoretical agreement that Congress needs to invest in water infrastructure, the Biden proposal is far larger than what either chamber of Congress has proposed. 

On March 24, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill authorizing $35 billion for water projects, including $14.7 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and $14.7 billion for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund over five years.

By comparison, House legislation that Transportation Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., introduced would authorize $50 billion over five years for wastewater alone, including $40 billion through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and authorizing $10 billion for grants for other wastewater infrastructure. That committee does not have jurisdiction over drinking water.

Unauthorized

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which has been appropriated for but never reauthorized since its establishment in 1987, is a low-cost loan assistance program that serves as the primary funding mechanism for water quality projects. 

The revolving fund replaced Clean Water Act Construction Grants, but the federal government’s investment in water infrastructure has diminished over time, with the government providing less than 5 percent of the total investment in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

As mandates have increased and the federal investment has diminished, utilities have often passed on those costs to consumers, with some customers increasingly unable to meet the costs. The pandemic and the economic crisis that resulted spurred more customers to default on their bills, leaving utilities struggling to meet basic costs. 

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. It then approved another $500 million in the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill. Clean water advocates compared the funding to low-income heating or food assistance, saying such help was necessary and overdue. 

Still, there is an estimated $8.5 billion in need, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. A summary of Biden’s plan did not specifically mention such help, but a bill approved by the Senate Environment Public Works Committee directs the EPA to create a pilot program aimed at helping low-income households pay water bills.

Nathan Gardner-Andrews, general counsel and chief advocacy officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, said the Biden proposal would help reverse a decline in federal funding and help clean water agencies “invest in critical infrastructure projects, advanced technologies and greater water quality protection.”

“Water deserves a full commitment from the federal government as a true funding partner,” he said.