NACWA, EPA, local leaders celebrate success stories as Clean Water Act turns 50

Leading members of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) took part in a national news conference this month, drawing attention to the impact of 10 major rain and flood events in 2022 and examining how the aggregate effect of climate change and arising operational challenges in the water sector are exposing a federal funding gap for modernizing clean water infrastructure. Despite industry-wide accolades for President Joe Biden’s $55 billion commitment to clean water laid out in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, NACWA says the United States faces a water infrastructure funding gap of nearly $1 trillion (or $1,000 billion) over the next two decades.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, this month, NACWA’s member utilities from Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland and others have been celebrating local victories, while expressing concern that the cost of providing clean and safe water continues to increase year over year, along with the household cost for accessing such water.

On Oct. 18, the official 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, EPA held a celebration on the banks of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland featuring agency officials, local leaders from Northeast Ohio and others who reflected on the 50 years of environmental progress resulting from passage of the Clean Water Act. Cleveland, of course, has a rich clean water history as the Cuyahoga River catching on fire, most notably in 1969, which inspired the Clean Water Act and a nationwide movement to address pollution in local waterways.

“Local ratepayers (the public) are currently largely footing the bill to fund urgently needed updates to our clean water infrastructure,” Kishia L. Powell, COO and executive vice president, DC Water in Washington, D.C., said this month. “In the District of Columbia, where we work, and other U.S. cities, we witness many lower income families paying a disproportionately large share of their income for clean water service. These families face difficult choices between paying for clean water for their families or paying for another crucial need, such as electricity, food or medicine. At DC Water, we are working to minimize the burden on disadvantaged households, through several customer assistance programs, including LIHWAP, and use of available infrastructure funding; we believe the federal government should do the same by continuing to grow its investment in our nation’s water infrastructure.”

Andrew Lee, general manager and CEO, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), Seattle, WA, added: “Recent water infrastructure funding efforts are an important step forward and are greatly appreciated, but further robust, annual investments are needed to close the financial gap. The growing costs to upgrade aging infrastructure, to address environmental pollution and expensive regulatory requirements, and to prepare for natural disaster mitigation– including climate change and seismic risk, are all significant concerns.”

At an event in early October, NACWA members pointed to recent events to underscore the imperative that federal government investments for water infrastructure are needed more than ever to increase resilience and protect public health in the face of natural disasters. 2022 saw a historic level of flooding and extreme weather, and water utilities were faced with increasing pressure on infrastructure not designed for the effects of climate change.

“Many American cities, especially older cities in the Midwest utilizing combined sewer and stormwater systems, are at great risk from overflows,” said Brian Perkovich, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. “With climate change, we are experiencing higher volumes of rain at quicker intervals. While funding authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is helpful, these funds are nowhere near enough to address stormwater management challenges nationwide.”

During a news conference, NACWA issued a fact sheet: “10 Extreme Rain and Flood Events in the US – All in 2022,” including estimates on damage costs and information on how water treatment facilities and other water infrastructure have been impacted. Events include: Hurricane Ian, combined flood and rain events in Jackson, MS, Dallas, TX, Eastern Kentucky, St. Louis, MO, Yellowstone National Park, Georgia, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Death Valley, NM. To download the fact sheet, click here

Key findings from the new NACWA report on 1,000-year rain and flood events in 2022 include:

  • On Sept. 28-30, in one of the costliest storms in U.S. history, Hurricane Ian cause an estimated $60 billion in damage. Early reports show hat at least a dozen wastewater treatment plants needed to release raw or partially treated sewage due to powerful downpours from Hurricane Ian, threatening public health and rescuers that had to wade through the tainted floodwaters in Collier County, Lee County, and Sarasota County, which all issued boil water notices.
  • On Aug. 24-25, a 1,000-year rain event in Jackson, Mississippi, caused an estimated $1 billion in damage. Jackson suffered from complete failure of its water infrastructure and was on a boil water advisory for two months. This failure stems from long term disinvestment in the water utility and a severe winter storm in 2021. The extreme weather event served to exacerbate an existing infrastructure failure, which has resulted in 300 boil water advisories over the last two years
  • On August 21-22, combined 1,000-year flood and rainfall events in Dallas caused between $4.5-6 billion in damage. Dallas Water Utilities stated that the city’s drainage system, which was built in the 1990s, is no longer adequate for the more frequent and intense storms Dallas is set to experience in the future, combined with the massive development and increases in impermeable surfaces in the watershed in that time.
  • On Aug. 5, 2022, a 1,000-year rain event in Death Valley, New Mexico caused more than $12 million in damages. Flooding in Death Valley caused a major break in the water line for the Cow Creek Water system, which provides water for park residents and offices. This line break caused a complete system failure during the flood.
  • On July 26-30, combined 1,000-year flood and rainfall events in Kentucky caused $16.8 million damage to water infrastructure, impacting water treatment facilities and other water infrastructure. Water infrastructure in Perry County, Kentucky, was “totally annihilated” by flash floods, and parts of some Kentucky counties could go without water service for 6 months to a year.

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