EPA touts water infrastructure money, but needs abound
Distressed communities clamor for federal funding for water systems, which has declined dramatically over the decades
The just-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill will provide the EPA with more than $50 billion for improving the nation’s water systems.
Anyone who doubts the need for such funding should take a peek at the inbox of Tommy Holmes, legislative director for the American Water Works Association, which represents public and private drinking water utilities across the country.
“I have been getting a relatively steady stream of emails and phone calls from water utilities large and small asking ‘all right, how do we apply for the money?’” Holmes said. “And I have to point out that, well, the president hasn’t signed it into law yet, so EPA can’t officially roll out the program.”
[House sends infrastructure bill to Biden without budget vote]
Distressed communities across the country are clamoring for federal money to help upgrade aging systems. That reflects in part how the federal share of water infrastructure funding has fallen from 63 percent in the 1970s to just 9 percent more recently.
“America has been chronically underinvesting in our water systems for decades,” Radhika Fox, EPA assistant administrator for water, said during a Tuesday press call touting money for water infrastructure in the bill.
That includes $11.7 billion each for the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, two programs that assist states and localities to build or improve their drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. The bill requires about half the money provided to be distributed as grants or fully forgivable loans.
The bill includes another $15 billion dedicated specifically for replacing drinking water lines that contain lead, which goes with President Joe Biden’s push to replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead service lines. Progressive lawmakers have taken issue with that level of funding given estimates that the actual cost of full replacement would be much higher. AWWA has pegged the figure at $60 billion or more.
Holmes said the agency also must first take administrative steps to roll out the program and process applications from states before the work of pulling out and replacing pipes can begin.
“This is a time-consuming process,” Holmes said. “However, this $15 billion will quicken the pace of replacement.”
Fox said the bill represents the “single largest investment” the federal government has ever made in water infrastructure, and it comes at a time when the country’s water systems are breaking down in many areas and the need for replacing lead service lines is clear.
“This is a president who does not want anybody in America to turn on their tap and wonder if their drinking water is safe or not,” she said. “And we’re going to use that $15 billion to really make rapid progress on his 100 percent goal.”
Reporters pressed Fox on whether the amount in the bill can deliver on that goal, however. She said several times that the money will allow for “rapid progress” toward the goal and that the agency would look to complement funding with new regulations.
She also noted that the cost of replacing lead service lines varies by region and said the agency will focus in implementation on helping states use economies of scale to maximize the money they receive.
“How can we aggregate some of the workforce training programs so we can get plumbers and pipe fitters trained up and ready to do these projects quickly?” she said.
The bill includes another $10 billion to help address so-called forever chemicals, or PFAS, and other emerging contaminants in drinking water.
The EPA plans to hold listening sessions and roundtable discussions as it develops a formula for the part of the PFAS-related funding that is slated for small, underserved and disadvantaged communities.
Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the $15 billion for lead line replacement is clearly significant, but that they are hoping for additional funding to come. He said that could happen through the budget reconciliation package, the latest version of which would provide about $10 billion more to address lead pipes.
Olson urged EPA to make good on its talk of prioritizing underserved communities and states with the greatest needs. That includes expediting the process of identifying which states need what money — an effort the agency intends to complete by next year.
“We’d like to see them do that ASAP, like the beginning of the year, so that they can allocate the funding based on need,” Olson said.
He also called for EPA to provide robust technical assistance so that higher-income communities that can afford consultants don’t end up elbowing out low-income communities.
And he said EPA will need to hire additional people to handle all that new money. Staffing increases are reflected in increased funding levels in the pending appropriations bills.
“There is some set-aside money for administrative costs in the [infrastructure legislation, but clearly EPA is going to need to staff up to help implement this, and the appropriations to make that happen are going to be crucial,” Olson said.