The Source Civil Engineering Magazine Policy Briefing: Bipartisan water and wastewater bill clears Senate easily

Policy Briefing: Bipartisan water and wastewater bill clears Senate easily

By Jay Landers

The recent passage by the Senate of comprehensive bipartisan legislation regarding drinking water and wastewater infrastructure has raised hopes among some congressional observers that the action could presage movement on a broader infrastructure package. In the meantime, the focus shifts to the House, where members have been slower to develop bipartisan bills to reauthorize the critical Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving fund programs and address community needs regarding such matters as lead in drinking water, resiliency and sustainability efforts, and stormwater management.

Rapid passage

On March 23, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D–Ill., the chair of the Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works — introduced the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act (S. 914). The legislation would authorize more than $35 billion for drinking water and wastewater programs over five years. The following day, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously approved the legislation. On April 29, the full Senate passed S. 914 handily by a vote of 89-2.

The ease with which S. 914 cleared the Senate was a welcome sign, says Caroline Sevier, the director of government relations for ASCE. “We were pleased to see the strong bipartisan support for the legislation, especially since it’s really the first significant piece of infrastructure legislation of Congress to be passed,” Sevier says. “We saw both sides of the aisle coming out in support of the legislation overall.”

Reauthorizing state revolving funds

Chief features of the bill include reauthorizations of the Clean Water and Drinking Water SRFs. Last reauthorized in 2018 for a period of three years, the Drinking Water SRF confers grants to states, which use the funding to provide subsidized loans to water agencies. In fiscal year 2021, the program received $1.13 billion, according to a Jan. 11 report from the Congressional Research Service. Under S. 914, the Drinking Water SRF would be authorized to receive $2.4 billion in fiscal year 2022, $2.75 billion in FY 2023, $3 billion in FY 2024, and $3.25 billion for each of FYs 2025 and 2026.

Since its creation in 1987 the Clean Water SRF has never been reauthorized by Congress, though lawmakers have continued to fund the program since its authorization expired in the mid-1990s. Like its drinking water counterpart, the Clean Water SRF provides grants to states, which loan the funds to entities engaged in activities pertaining primarily to wastewater treatment but also certain stormwater-related efforts. Under S. 914, the Clean Water SRF would be authorized to receive $2.4 billion in FY 2022, $2.75 billion in FY 2023, $3 billion in FY 2024, and $3.25 billion in each of FYs 2025 and 2026. By comparison, the Clean Water SRF received $1.64 billion in FY 2021, according to the CRS report.

“My bipartisan bill would invest significant federal dollars to help states, communities, and schools fix and upgrade aging water systems to improve water quality, while fostering economic growth throughout the country,” said Duckworth in comments on the Senate floor during debate on the bill, according to the transcript in the Congressional Record for April 29. “Our legislation seeks to reauthorize and enhance state revolving loan funds, which are the most effective tools we have to provide states with federal investments that empower local leaders to modernize water systems, implement lead reduction projects, and rebuild stormwater overflow infrastructure.”

Helping disadvantaged communities

Besides improving public health and the environment and spurring economic activity, S. 914 is intended to assist disadvantaged communities that have not benefited to the extent they could have from previous infrastructure programs, said Sen. Tom Carper, D–Del., the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, while speaking in support of the bill on the Senate floor. The legislation “makes sure we are helping our fellow Americans most in need — the least of these, the most in need — by boosting funding for programs that fund projects in low-income areas, rural communities and tribal lands, and communities of color that have historically been left behind by investments in our water infrastructure,” Carper said, according to the Congressional Record. To this end, “more than 40% of this bill’s investments are targeted to help disadvantaged communities,” he noted.

For example, S. 914 would double, from 6% to 12%, the minimum percentage of funds from the Drinking Water SRF that must go to disadvantaged communities, according to Senate Report 117-20, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s summary of the legislation. Similarly, the bill would require that states dedicate a minimum of 10% of their Clean Water SRF funds to disadvantaged communities, the report notes.

Addressing lead in drinking water is another focus of S. 914. The legislation would reauthorize the existing program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide grants for efforts to reduce lead in drinking water. For FY 2021, Congress appropriated $21.5 million for the program. Under S. 914, this program would be authorized to receive $100 million annually from FYs 2022 through 2026. The legislation also would create a new $10 million EPA grant program to assist with the removal of lead service lines in water systems having lead in at least 30% of their service lines.

Promoting resilience, affordability

To help improve system resilience, S. 914 would reauthorize an existing EPA program that provides grants to small communities for use in protecting drinking water infrastructure from natural hazards or extreme weather events. The legislation also would create a similar program to provide such grants to midsize and large drinking water systems. Under this new program, which would be authorized to receive $50 million annually for five years, half of the funding would go to eligible entities serving populations of 10,000 to 100,000. The other half would be reserved for entities serving populations of more than 100,000.

Meanwhile, wastewater agencies of all sizes would be eligible for grant funding from a new EPA program called for in S. 914. Intended to promote resiliency and sustainability efforts, the program, which would be authorized to receive $25 million annually for five years, would “address rising threats to clean water infrastructure from climate change or cybersecurity vulnerabilities,” according to the Senate Report.

ASCE approves this emphasis on resilience in S. 914, Sevier says. “The way the legislation is structured, it’s looking to take water projects and make sure they are addressing the impacts of climate change and being a bit more forward thinking,” she says.

The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies also appreciates the addition of the new program to help midsize and larger systems become more resilient, says Dan Hartnett, the organization’s chief advocacy officer for legislative and regulatory affairs. “If that’s enacted, the whole universe of the nation’s community water systems will have an opportunity to compete for EPA funds to help them address climate challenges, which we think is really important,” Hartnett says.

The legislation also would seek to improve water affordability through the creation of a pilot program at the EPA. Under the program, the agency could provide up to 40 grants to “eligible entities to develop and implement programs to assist low-income households with need in maintaining access to affordable and reliable drinking water and wastewater treatment,” according to the Senate Report.

Increasing this type of assistance is “very important, given how water bills are increasing” as a result of mounting infrastructure costs, Hartnett says. “Having funding available from the federal government to supplement existing local-level ratepayer assistance programs will help even more families receive aid.”

Looking ahead

The Biden administration has expressed its support for S. 914. “This legislation aligns with the administration’s goals to upgrade and modernize aging infrastructure, improve the health of children and small and disadvantaged communities, develop new technologies, and help address cybersecurity threats and mitigate dangers from climate change,” according to an April 27 statement of administration policy issued by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

In the House, where jurisdiction over drinking water and wastewater is split between different committees, a path forward on water infrastructure legislation is less clear. In March, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D–Ore., the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, introduced the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act (H.R. 1915). The legislation would authorize $50 billion over five years for wastewater infrastructure and water quality efforts, including $40 billion for the Clean Water SRF program.

Although H.R. 1915 has attracted some bipartisan support, the legislation does not have the backing of Rep. Sam Graves, R–Mo., the ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Instead, Graves has cosponsored the Wastewater Infrastructure Improvement Act (H.R. 3218), which is much less ambitious than DeFazio’s bill. For example, H.R. 3218 would authorize $14 billion for the Clean Water SRF program over five years.

As for drinking water infrastructure, the main legislative vehicle in the House currently is the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for Our Nation’s Future Act, known as the CLEAN Future Act (H.R. 1512). The legislation, introduced in March, focuses heavily on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, though it also includes provisions pertaining to drinking water and dam safety. For example, H.R. 1512 would boost authorized funding levels for the Drinking Water SRF to $4.1 billion in FY 2022, followed by $4.8 billion in FY 2023, and $5.5 billion in FYs 2024 through 2031.

At publication time, none of the three House bills had been considered by their committees of jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans were negotiating with the White House on a potential compromise to the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan that the administration proposed in late March. Republicans have objected to the high price tag of the plan, which called for $111 billion for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater management infrastructure.

Although hurdles remain, Sevier thinks that the water infrastructure legislation recently approved by the Senate could help lay the groundwork for a broader infrastructure deal. “If Congress can come to some sort of bipartisan agreement on an infrastructure package and we start to see something moving, I think that the Senate-passed bill could easily be included as a part of a package,” she says.

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