Over the last few weeks, the Biden Administration and leaders in the U.S. House and Senate have put forward proposals to fix the nation’s inadequate drinking water and sewage treatment infrastructure through new federal investment.
New investment is sorely needed. The Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin face more than $188 billion in water infrastructure repairs and upgrades over 20 years to meet clean water objectives and to protect the health of local communities, according to the U.S. EPA.
Further, between 6 million and 10 million homes continue to receive their drinking water through lead service lines, posing a serious risk to their health. Last month, in a scathing assessment of the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its national scorecard, granting a “C-” for drinking water infrastructure, “D” for stormwater infrastructure, and “D+” for wastewater infrastructure.
The state is dire. It is time to act. A top priority for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition is to boost federal investment in our nation’s water infrastructure.
We’ve looked at the House, Senate, and Biden Administration proposals to see how they stack up against one another. The U.S. Senate passed legislation last week, and over the next few months lawmakers will negotiate what a final package will look like. As is to be expected, the proposals differ in scope, ambition, and timeframe. The good news: All of the them boost federal investment to start to get at the immense backlog of work. The question is: How far is the nation willing to go to make water safer and more affordable?
Bigger Equals Better for People, Health, Communities
It’s important to not mince words: More funding will be better. More funding will mean that we will be able to tackle the problems more quickly. That means reducing sewage contamination that closes beaches. That means replacing lead service lines that threaten the health of people, especially children. That means reducing skyrocketing water bills that are pushing more and more people to the brink, unable to afford their water—one-in-three Americans, to be exact. There is no way around the fact that getting more money out the door more quickly will help accelerate addressing the country’s infrastructure crisis and thereby protect our health and our communities.
These Investments are Critical for the most Vulnerable Communities
The Environmental Protection Agency has found that pollution disproportionately impacts low-income, Indigenous, and communities of color. The water infrastructure crisis is no different, from lead contamination to sky-rocketing water utility bills. The country has the opportunity to right these wrongs. In this regard, the Biden and House plans offer both more funding as well as targeted programs to help vulnerable communities.
Comparing the House, Senate and Biden Plans
So how do the packages compare? When looking at the total financial investment in three major areas – drinking water infrastructure, wastewater treatment infrastructure, and lead-line replacement – the Biden Administration package comes out ahead.
- Biden Administration Plan: $111 billion
- House Plan: $101 billion
- Senate Plan: $35 billion
(Note: Senate Republicans have put forward an infrastructure roadmap that proposes a $35 billion investment in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure over 5 years through “renewed federal policies and programs.” Due to the lack of details we cannot, at this time, provide a comparison of this proposal.)
The catch is that the Biden plan assumes funding over eight years, while the House and Senate plans are 5-year investments. If we look at annual investments, the House plan shows greater ambition:
- House Plan: $20 billion/year
- Biden Administration Plan: $13.875 billion/year
- Senate Plan: $7 billion/year
- Current appropriations: $3 billion/year
Each of these proposals provides a much-needed boost over current funding levels, although some are, obviously, larger in scope. Here are some quick-takeaways from each plan.
Senate plan is the most conservative plan, a first step focusing on nuts-and-bolts upgrades to water infrastructure. The Senate Environment and Public Works committee quickly picked up where they left off in the last Congressional session, introducing an expanded and bi-partisan comprehensive water infrastructure package, the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act. The bill, which passed the Senate last week, would invest more than $35 billion in water resource development projects of which more than 40 percent can be directly used to benefit small, disadvantaged, rural, and tribal communities through additional subsidization from the State Revolving Loan Funds or direct grant programs. Notably absent is any kind of targeted lead-line replacement program.
The Biden plan aims big—with a priority on lead-line replacement. The American Jobs Plan released earlier this month by the Biden Administration would invest $111 billion over 8-years in water infrastructure. Notably, the plan seeks to replace 100% of lead pipes and service lines nationwide, investing $45 billion through the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grants. That’s the most funding dedicated to lead-line replacement in any of the three plans. And it’s needed. The plan also seeks to tackle new contaminants and supporting clean water infrastructure across rural communities, investing $10 billion to monitor and remediate toxic PFAS in drinking water and to invest in rural small water systems and household well and wastewater systems.
The House plan offers the biggest federal investment out of the gate. The House of Representatives has pieced together two major water infrastructure proposals focusing on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure investments, respectively. The Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s (LIFT) America Act and Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021 offer more than $78 billion in drinking water and wastewater water infrastructure investments – the most of any of the plans. The investment of $22.5 billion of lead-line replacement is half of the Biden Administration’s plan, but will still get $4.5 billion out per year for the first five years – far above the Senate’s $710 million.
The plan tackles toxic PFAS contamination (although lower than Biden plan) as well as offers $2.5 billion in wastewater infrastructure assistance to address the backlog of critical needs for Indian Tribes.
Coalition Urges Elected Officials to Go Big
The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition is urging elected officials to be bold and to fund a water infrastructure plan that funds solutions to the immense challenge at hand. The decades-long disinvestment in water infrastructure by the federal government needs to be reversed. The Coalition and its allies are urging federal elected officials to invest at least $30 billion this fiscal year in the nation’s water infrastructure to protect the drinking water and health of local communities, as well as the health of iconic waters like the Great Lakes. These problems will not fix themselves. Quite the opposite: Delay will only make the problems worse and more expensive to solve. Too many cities and towns are living with unsafe water. And we need to do everything we can to ensure that every resident of this country has access to clean, safe, and affordable water. In the coming months, as the U.S. Congress and Biden Administration discuss how to address the nation’s water infrastructure crisis, we encourage elected officials to think big and act accordingly.