Congress, water sector signal optimism for major investment

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On Thursday the U.S. Senate voted to pass S. 914, the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act (DWWIA). It is the first infrastructure bill approved by the Senate this Congress.

The bipartisan, comprehensive clean water and drinking water infrastructure legislation will authorize strong annual water infrastructure investment to help boost total federal investment. In full, the legislation authorizes more than $35 billion for drinking water and wastewater resource development projects across the country “with a focus on upgrading aging infrastructure, addressing the threat of climate change, investing in new technologies, and providing assistance to marginalized communities.”

The major components of the bill remained unchanged as the full Senate gave its approval, including provisions to reauthorize:

  • The Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds, each at a total of $14.65 billion over five years;
  • The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program at $50 million per year for five years;
  • EPA’s Reducing Lead in Drinking Water Grants at $100 million per year for five years; and
  • The Drinking Water System Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability Program, which helps small and disadvantaged communities prepare drinking water infrastructure for the impacts of climate change, at $25 million per year for five years.

Also preserved were provisions to establish new programs, such as:

  • A Midsize and Large Drinking Water System Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability Program to help drinking water systems serving more than 10,000 people prepare for the effects of climate change and extreme weather, along with a mirror program for wastewater systems of all sizes. Each of those new programs would be authorized at $50 million per year for five years.

The legislation also authorizes a pilot program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assist low-income households in maintaining access to affordable water services. The program would offer up to 40 grants to support municipally operated water and wastewater affordability efforts – potentially representing a step toward a permanent federal low-income water and wastewater ratepayer assistance program that is a goal of the Affordable Water, Resilient Communities campaign organized by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA).

The bill was introduced by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) and Ranking EPW Member Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chair of the EPW Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure; Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Chair of the EPW Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife and the bill’s lead author; Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Ranking Member of the EPW Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife; and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The legislation passed by a vote of 89-2.

“NACWA commends the Senate for this strong reauthorization on a bipartisan basis of the primary federal programs that help local communities finance clean water infrastructure,” said NACWA CEO Adam Krantz. “It is notable that this is the first major infrastructure legislation to pass the U.S. Senate this year and that it happened during Water Week a time when the water sector comes together to celebrate its critical role in public health, environmental protection and economic development.

“NACWA is also heartened to see the inclusion of a pilot program for a low-income household water assistance program administered by EPA included in this legislation with bipartisan support. Water affordability issues gained increased prominence during the pandemic and warrant continued attention by Congress. This legislation shows that water infrastructure investment is a bipartisan issue, and it can serve as an important foundation for including water as a major component in a broad infrastructure package.”

Positive Momentum at Water Week

The month of April saw optimism intensify in the water infrastructure sector for major federal investment. It began with the release of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion infrastructure plan aimed at creating jobs and rebuilding U.S. infrastructure. The Biden Administration is proposing a total of $111 billion dollars in clean water and drinking water investments.

Then last week, water utility executives and other water professionals from around the country gathered virtually for Water Week 2021, an annual week of briefings and advocacy that seeks to elevate water sector priorities in Washington. Highlighting the week’s activities was a Policy Zoom-In jointly hosted by NACWA, AMWA and other partners.

Recently confirmed EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan was on hand to deliver opening remarks along with Radhika Fox, who was also recently confirmed as Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water. Both Regan and Fox discussed EPA priorities for the water sector including increased federal investment beginning with S. 914, along with prioritizing the impacts of climate change on the water sector, addressing PFAS and other contaminants, low-income affordability, environmental justice, cybersecurity and workforce development. In the wastewater sector alone, Fox noted that 30 t0 50 percent of the workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years.

“This is water’s moment. This is what you all have been working toward for many years,” Fox told the audience of public utility leaders as she referenced the years of advocacy from utilities and organizations for the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” water infrastructure sector now potentially coming to fruition.

Water has rarely enjoyed the spotlight historically, even in cases where infrastructure investment has been heavily pushed politically. But that tide could be turning as officials like Fox and others in the industry have struck a more optimistic tone in recent months.

The provisions in S. 914 also include some positive implications for small and rural water and wastewater systems.

In a letter to EPW Chairman Carper and Ranking Member Moore Capito, Matthew Holmes, CEO of the National Rural Water Association, wrote: “We enthusiastically support enactment of the bill, and appreciate the many helpful and beneficial provisions for rural America in your water legislation. Your legislation includes numerous beneficial provisions such as expansion of technical assistance, subsidized funding initiatives within the state revolving funds targeted to the communities with the greatest need, new targeting of funding assistance to disadvantaged communities, etc. We also appreciate the fact that your legislation does not include any new federal unfunded mandates on local governments.”

What’s Next?

As for next steps, the S. 914 legislation will be sent to the House of Representatives, where other lawmakers and committees have pitched their own water infrastructure proposals this year without advancement. According to AMWA, the timing for any of these measures to go before the full House is unclear, and a final water infrastructure package could be formulated later this year when House and Senate members meet in a conference committee to negotiate a compromise between S. 914 and the final House proposal.


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