In Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Water law, Water policy

The Next 50 Years of the Clean Water Act: Evening the Playing Field

Public clean water agencies are proud of the improvements to the environmental, social, and economic health of local communities they have helped bring about through 50 years of Clean Water Act (CWA) implementation. From significant advancements in wastewater treatment and stormwater management, to clean energy generation, carbon emissions reductions, urban renewal projects and green infrastructure development, public water and wastewater utilities have been at the forefront of protecting public health and the environment throughout the Act’s history.

As far as we have come, however, there is still much work to be done and, critically, many inequities still to be addressed. But those challenges can be met if federal, state, and local agencies work together with communities towards shared objectives under the CWA.

The Biden-Harris Administration has put its proverbial money where its mouth is with respect to advancing environmental justice. This includes the adoption of the Justice40 Initiative, which directs that at least 40% of benefits from federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities.

As implemented through the Justice40 Initiative, Congress’ recent historic infusion of over $11.7 billion in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) will provide clean water agencies with critical opportunities in the coming years to invest in a wide range of water quality infrastructure projects in environmental justice communities. But states will also need to do their part. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has encouraged in its CWSRF implementation guidance, states must revisit their CWSRF policies – especially those that help identify disadvantaged and underserved populations – to ensure that utilities can make equitable infrastructure investments benefiting both rural and urban communities that have been subjected to chronic underinvestment.

In addition to the increase in CWSRF funding, Congress’ development of the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP) could also prove to be a major turning point in the advancement of environmental justice and equity. Created as part of the COVID-19 relief packages, LIHWAP was the first ever federal funding specifically dedicated to assisting low-income water and wastewater ratepayers, providing over $1.1 billion to help with utility bills during the pandemic.

Congress has since authorized the establishment of a pilot low-income water and wastewater assistance program at EPA, thereby paving the way for the administration to create a permanent, reliable, and long-overdue program. It is critical that federal assistance for low-income households become permanent, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) is working with other water utility organizations to help make that possible.

As important as these federal investments are, however, lasting success is achieved through determined steps, not leaping bounds. To that aim, the CWA’s integrated planning framework will be a key tool for clean water utilities to use to help effectuate systemic change in their communities over the coming decades.

Communities across the country with limited resources are grappling with population shifts, aging infrastructure, increasingly complex water quality issues and a changing climate.  As much as we wish we could, we cannot solve all of these challenges at once. The integrated planning framework allows municipalities to sequence investments so that the highest priority projects for the impacted communities come first. In doing so, integrated planning empowers and gives a voice to communities that have often gone overlooked and provides a pathway for utilities to develop solutions that not only improve water quality, but also enhance community vitality.

The integrated planning process also includes a recognition that it is impossible to divorce affordability considerations from those concerning equity. Environmental justice communities have historically paid a disproportionate percentage of their income for the same water and wastewater services. A key element of the integrated planning framework is the honest assessment of what level of spending is affordable for the citizens of a particular community.

EPA has proposed updates to its Financial Capability Assessment Guidance in an effort to better measure economic impacts on low-income populations, but the current draft misses the mark. Integrated planning was developed to enhance community engagement – to provide a new way of prioritizing clean water investment – but it, too, will suffer if the underlying policies do not adequately reflect the financial impacts imposed on these communities. The long-term viability of integrated planning, and its opportunities for achieving meaningful community involvement and environmental justice, relies on getting financial capability assessments right. It is incumbent upon EPA to ensure that its policies do not burden environmental justice communities with extreme affordability challenges in an effort to correct past inequities.

Public clean water utilities are environmental and economic anchor institutions in their communities, and they have made important strides in addressing environmental justice. But systemic inequities, some of which the utilities themselves acknowledge they played a role in creating, remain.

NACWA’s Board of Directors adopted a Statement of Principles and Recommended Actions on Environmental Justice, which guides the work of its newly formed Environmental Justice Committee.  Clean water agencies are working to make environmental justice a central component of their missions, and to foster greater community outreach and engagement that will ultimately lead to lasting community empowerment and equity.

There will be growing pains. No level of government is going to get it right all the time. But with the help and support of their federal and state partners, public clean water agencies can go far in combating environmental injustices using the tools provided by the CWA for decades to come.

Our thanks to Amanda Aspatore, General Counsel at National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) for this guest blog post. Opinions stated above do not necessarily represent the views of River Network.

Visit our blog to learn more about River Network’s SRF and LIHWAP work and learn more about the Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual here.

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