Unpacking Federal Water Policy Progress, Gaps & What Lies Ahead
Like many of you, when the Biden Administration and the new Congress began their work at the start of this year, I began hopefully anticipating what they would do help ensure more people have access to safe, clean, affordable water and our communities have healthy, resilient waterways. Since then, as droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, and COVID-19 continue to intensify and add additional stress to our communities, the need to act quickly has come into even sharper focus.
Now that we are seven months into the new Administration and Congress, River Network’s Policy Team (Katherine Baer, Sheyda Esnaashari, Colleen Walters, and myself) thought it would be a good time to review what has been accomplished, what’s left to do, and the biggest opportunities and threats on the horizon.
The big-picture highlights are:
- Funding for Water Infrastructure Investment, Water Affordability, and Low-Income and Emergency Water Assistance. Many proposals to fund water infrastructure, water affordability, and low-income and emergency water assistance – in addition to other important infrastructure, climate, and social programs – have been put forward, which is encouraging. However, many of the water-related funding proposals fall far short of meeting the needs and still have a long way to go before implementation.
- Environmental Justice. Long-overdue environmental justice initiatives are being proposed, but to make needed progress, in the words of the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a “transformative and accountable process” is needed to ensure they evolve into tangible action.
- Fixing Rollbacks. The new Administration is working to address harmful clean water rollbacks enacted by the previous Administration, and a recent court ruling has pushed the EPA to “halt implementation” of the Dirty Water Rule while they work to put more protective rules in place.
Read on for a more in-depth overview of each of these areas…
Funding for Water Infrastructure Investment, Water Affordability, and Low-Income and Emergency Water Assistance
The CARES Act, Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, and the American Rescue Plan. Together, these bills provided trillions of COVID relief dollars to states and tribes. Some of those funds are eligible for water infrastructure investments and low-income and emergency water assistance by states and local governments. Virginia, for example, is putting $411 million towards clean water programs and wastewater treatment.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 also established the Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Emergency Assistance Program (LIHWAP), which received $638 million. An additional $500 million was added from the American Rescue Plan bringing the total to $1.138 billion. To learn more about the program, how it’s being implemented, and how you can engage, check out Sheyda’s blog post.
However, LIHWAP is temporary; a permanent program – along with other actions and investments – are critically needed. Additional investments that could help make LIHWAP permanent, along with other critical funding and programs, are on the horizon, but still have a long way to go to make it over the finish line.
The American Jobs Plan (introduced March 2021): The Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan proposal calls for a $111 billion investment in water infrastructure. In the plan, they called for the removal of all lead water lines in the US; modernizing drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater infrastructure; tackling PFAS; and addressing flooding and climate change resilience – especially for those most vulnerable – while creating jobs, including for disadvantaged workers.
A number of different funding proposals in Congress are aimed at carrying out this plan, but none so far come close to hitting the $111 billion mark. Here are two key proposals currently in-play and their notable funding gaps. Thanks to the Clean Water for All Coalition, of which River Network is a member, for their analysis and summary on what was included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and the gaps when compared to Clean Water for All’s recommendations:
Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIB)
In August 2021, the Senate approved the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIB). $550 billion in the bill is for new infrastructure, including water infrastructure, but also roads, bridges, and broadband internet. The bill incorporates some of what was in the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 passed by the Senate earlier this year. Here is a rundown on water funding included in the BIB:
- Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF)
- What Can It Be Used For? Several different types of projects including wastewater treatment infrastructure; nonpoint source pollution management; stormwater management; and water conservation, efficiency, and reuse.
- How Much Money Is There? $11.713 billion over five years in new spending, in addition to $8.195 billion over five years in baseline spending, for a total of $19.9 billion over five years.
- What’s the Gap? The Clean Water for All Coalition has called for $100 billion in funding over 10 years, leaving an annual gap of $6 billion / total gap of $80 billion.
- Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF)
- What Can It Be Used For? To improve drinking water sources, treatment infrastructure, storage infrastructure, and/or distribution infrastructure.
- How Much Money Is There? $11.713 billion over five years in new spending, in addition to $5.63 billion over five years in baseline spending, for a total of $17.343 billion over five years.
- What’s the Gap? The Clean Water for All Coalition has called for $100 billion over 10 years, leaving an annual gap of $6.53 billion / total gap of $82.66 billion.
- Lead Service Line (LSL) Replacement
- How Much Money Is There? $15 billion, through the DWSRF.
- What’s the Gap? The Clean Water for All Coalition has called for $45 billion for LSL replacement, a number many agree it will take to replace all LSLs in the US, leaving a total gap of $30 billion.
- To learn more about the Clean and Drinking Water SRFs, check out our Equitable Water Infrastructure Toolkit.
- PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)
- What Is It? PFAS are a group of toxic chemicals that are found in waters all across the US, and at critically harmful levels in some communities.
- How Much Money Is There? $10 billion over five years to clean up PFAS pollution; $1 billion through the CWSRF, $4 billion through the DWSRF, and $5 billion through the Safe Drinking Water Act.
- What’s the Gap? No gap! The Clean Water for All Coalition has called for $2 billion over 10 years for grants to publicly owned treatment works for implementation.
- Low-Income Debt Relief and Water Bill Assistance
- What Is It? PolicyLink’s Water Equity and Climate Resilience caucus, of which River Network is a member, recently published an Op-Ed that outlines why we must pair new water spending with water bill assistance.
- How Much Money Is There? $0 in funding was included in the BIB.
- What’s the Gap? The Clean Water for All Coalition has called for $90B over 10 years.
- Other Clean Water and Drinking Water Programs
- How Much Money and For What? $8.3 billion for western water; $4.5 billion for the Building Resilient Communities (BRIC) and Flood Mitigation Assistance programs; $3.25 billion for coastal and flood resilience planning and habitat restoration; and $15.97 billion for Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation.
- What Are the Gaps?
- The Clean Water for All Coalition also called for $7.55 billion over 10 years for other clean water programs including: $1.2 billion for Alaska villages, $1 billion for the Mexico border, $4 billion for Combined/Sanitary Sewer Overflows (CSO/SSO) grants, $500 million for decentralized wastewater treatment, $500 million for technical support, $200 million for resiliency, $100 million for efficiency, and $50 million for workforce development
- The Clean Water for All Coalition also called for $5.6 billion over 10 years for other drinking water programs including: $4 billion to address lead in schools, $1 billion for Colonias, and $600 million for disadvantaged communities
- Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF)
House members want their priorities addressed in the budget process too. The House passed their own infrastructure bill, the INVEST in America Act, in July. The $715 billion, five-year bill included $40 billion for the CWSRF, $2 billion for CSO/SSOs, and $2.5 billion for state water pollution control programs. For drinking water, the bill included: $53 billion for the DWSRF, $45 billion to replace lead service lines, $8 billion for water bill assistance, and $4 billion for water debt relief. It also addressed green infrastructure and failing septic systems.
The BIB also has to pass the House, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will not bring the bill for a vote until the Senate also passes and sends the House a Budget Reconciliation Bill. House and Senate Democrats, and the White House, are wanting to use both bills, in combination, to fund their priority infrastructure, climate, and social programs. You can learn about the budget reconciliation process here.
Congress won’t take up the budget reconciliation bill until they’re back from recess in mid-September, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave instructions to Senate Committees in early August and told them to start figuring out what they want to do with their allocations. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) was given $67 billion to work with and was told to include “Environmental justice investments in clean water affordability and access,” amongst many other things.
House committees are also working on what they want included in the reconciliation bill.
Given the gaps that still remain from the BIB, highlighted above, there is a great need for all of us to reach out to our members of Congress and ask for these water projects to get the investments they need.
A number of bills have been introduced (though none have yet been passed) and the Biden Administration has launched the Justice40 Initiative to address the disproportionate harm experienced by low-income and communities of color in the US due to pollution, lack of investment, and climate change.
President Biden signed an Executive Order in January committing to “make environmental justice a part of the mission of every agency by directing federal agencies to develop programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts on disadvantaged communities.” The order also established a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to “prioritize environmental justice and ensure a whole-of-government approach to addressing current and historical environmental injustices.” Building off EPA’s EJSCREEN, the order also initiated the development of a Climate and Environmental Justice Screening Tool to “identify disadvantaged communities, support the Justice40 Initiative, and inform equitable decision making across the federal government.”
The Justice 40 Initiative aims to deliver “40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments (in climate and clean energy) to disadvantaged communities and tracks performance toward that goal through the establishment of an Environmental Justice Scorecard.” The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council made recommendations to the Administration calling for a “transformative and accountable process (to be) developed for the fair and just distribution of 40% or more of the benefits to frontline communities.” In July, members of the Administration released interim guidance to “help Federal agencies deliver on the Justice40 Initiative.”
The previous Administration rolled back a number of environmental and clean water safeguards and the Biden Administration has started to address some of them.
A major rollback of interest to many river and clean water organizations is the Trump Administration’s “Dirty Water Rule.” After the Dirty Water Rule went into effect in early 2020 more than half of the nation’s streams and wetlands lost Clean Water Act protections. Earlier this year, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) announced their plans to begin the process of revising the Dirty Water Rule, and recently began a process to gather public input on how to proceed. Additionally, in late August six tribes represented by Earthjustice won their lawsuit before the US district court for the District of Arizona resulting in the Dirty Water Rule being thrown out nationwide. The court ruled that the Dirty Water Rule has potential to cause serious harm if it remains in place while the EPA drafts a new rule. Following the court ruling, the EPA and Corps announced they would halt implementation of the Dirty Water Rule and are now “interpreting “waters of the United States” consistent with the pre-2015 regulatory regime until further notice.” We will continue to ask the agencies to act quickly and adopt strong, robust federal clean water protections that are rooted in science and consistent with the objective of the Clean Water Act.
Another policy of interest was the Trump Administration’s rollback of Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. Section 401 empowers states and tribes to review many types of federally licensed projects proposed within their borders and gives them the opportunity to examine the impacts projects will have on their waterways and, if needed, impose limits or stop projects that have unacceptable impacts to drinking water, recreation or local economies. The Trump Administration changed Section 401 and limited the reasons states and tribes can reject, or place conditions on, projects and imposed arbitrary time constraints that would limit the ability of states and tribes to adequately review projects proposed within their borders. In June, the EPA began the process of revising the rule and in August they released a memo that laid out circumstances that allowed states and tribes to take up to a year to review projects in their jurisdiction.
Dozens of other actions and bills have also been proposed and we will continue monitor which ones move forward. We hope you’ll continue to stay connected with the Policy Team here at River Network so that we can work together to ensure our decision makers in Washington, DC, do all they can to ensure all Americans have equitable access to safe, clean, affordable water and our communities have healthy, resilient waterways. One key way to work together is to participate in Action Days for Clean Water and Rivers 2022. Go ahead and mark your calendars for June 7-8 in Washington, DC (right after River Rally 2022) and look for additional details in the coming months. We hope to see you there!
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