On Monday, November 15, President Biden signed into law a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), paving the way for historic investments in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, Great Lakes restoration, and core clean water priorities. This historic legislation is a big step forward in addressing the water infrastructure crisis threatening our communities and accelerating the restoration of the Great Lakes. But what are these investments and how can they help communities most impacted by pollution?
What can this mean for the region?
The new law has the potential to be transformative for the 8-state Great Lakes region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New York) and the nation, potentially investing over $1.2 trillion in a broad range of infrastructure priorities from roads and bridges to broadband and water infrastructure. Some of the key topline investments with the potential to aid states and communities in making progress on clean water and environmental restoration priorities include:
- $1 billion in supplemental funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) over 5 years
- $50 billion in clean water and drinking water infrastructure through key Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) programs, including:
- $11.7 billion for both the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF & DWSRF) programs
- $15 billion for lead service line replacement through the Drinking Water SRF program
- $10 billion to address emerging contaminants through the Small and Disadvantaged Communities program, the Drinking Water SRF, and the Clean Water SRF
- Billions in potential additional funding for existing and new water infrastructure programs over the next 5 years with up to:
- $22.8 billion for the Clean Water SRF
- $20 billion for the Drinking Water SRF
- $1.4 billion for EPA’s Sec. 221 Sewer Overflow grant program
- $700 million for EPA’s Reducing Lead in Drinking Water and Lead in Schools programs
- $250 million for a new EPA Individual Decentralized Wastewater Treatment System grant program
Why is this important and how does this help my community?
Great Lakes Restoration
Our region has long faced the consequences of the harmful legacy of decades of pollution and habitat destruction. Since 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has established a successful federal-local partnership that has achieved significant environmental and public health benefits for the region, producing economic returns of more than 3-to-1 for every dollar invested. But, even with the results from over 6,000 projects, there is still much work to do. Toxic hotspots stunt the development of and threaten the health of too many Great Lakes communities. Runoff from farm fields, septic systems, and other sources continue to pollute our waters causing increasingly larger toxic algae outbreaks each year that threaten water systems, public health, and economic vitality. Habitat loss and aquatic invasive species continue to damage our region’s outdoor way of life.
The IIJA will provide substantial supplemental funding annually, totaling $1 billion over 5 years to address these threats to our region’s quality of life.
Our communities have been grappling with crumbling and unsafe drinking water and wastewater infrastructure for decades. At minimum, it is estimated that the Great Lakes region needs a staggering $188 billion over the next 20 years to improve, upgrade, and repair systems, showcasing the need for a transformational federal commitment in this critical infrastructure. This work has also become increasingly unaffordable for communities and residents, as the federal contribution to water infrastructure declined precipitously over the last four decades, falling from 63 percent of water infrastructure spending in the 1970s to 9 percent today.
This new package will nearly double traditional federal contributions to the SRF program over the next 5 years with a further $25 billion in targeted investments to address lead service line replacement and emerging contaminants.
How do these funds help the communities most in need?
Despite this significant investment, far too often the costs of repairing and replacing critical water infrastructure are being passed on to those who can least afford it. A lack of investment that has disproportionately impacted communities that have historically borne the brunt of pollution and now are faced with water utility bills that have doubled or tripled over the last decade.
Historically, most of the SRF program funds had to be paid back with interest. This was a barrier for many communities and utilities to access these funds. This legislation will require that half of the funds in the general (or non-targeted) SRF program investments program must be used to provide 100% principal forgiveness or be distributed as grants, a significant increase over the previously capped level. Moreover, the $25 billion in targeted funds for lead service line replacement and emerging contaminants is mandated to be fully distributed as grants or loans with 100% principal forgiveness or as grants. This subsidization can dramatically reduce the cost burden of repairing or replacing failing infrastructure for many of our communities.
It is important, though, to be clear that this is only a start. Much of the challenge of equitable implementation will fall on the state, which will receive most of these funds to distribute through existing systems. These systems are often a challenge for many small or low-income communities and utilities to navigate. Moving forward, it is essential to continue to engage the federal-state-local partnership to enhance public engagement, invest in technical assistance, and make sure our most vulnerable communities are centered in this implementation process.
How much money will flow to my state?
With billions expected to flow through new and existing programs, federal and state agencies are rushing to prepare to administer these investments over the next 5 years. For state administered SRF programs, this could mean preparing for millions in additional funding, which can have significant impacts for communities.
While we don’t have exact figures, projecting out funding for non-targeted SRF funds consistent with previous year allocations, we can theorize that the Great Lakes states could see the following increases in the federal contribution to their respective CWSRF and DWSRF programs. The “Minimum IIJA Investment as Enacted” reflects what is expected to flow to each state from the funds directly provided by the bill upon signing, but the “Maximum IIJA Investment” reflects the potential maximum if Congress supports the amounts authorized to be appropriated in addition to the initial funding in future years:HOW conference slides
HOW conference slides (1)
(All figures are approximate and do not include state match or other contributions)
This historic victory is a leap forward in investing in the communities of the region and in the Great Lakes, themselves, but it is only the first step in the process. More work is needed to empower communities to invest these funds where they are most needed and ensure that all have access to safe, clean water.
Moreover, in Congress the job is not done. The passage of the IIJA begins to address our regional water infrastructure crisis, but these issues cannot be addressed in the long-term without acting on the climate crisis. Climate change threatens communities as more intense storms lead to more flooding, overwhelming sewer systems, contaminating drinking water sources, and pushing current infrastructure past its limits.
The good news is that there is an immediate opportunity to build on the passage of the IIJA by taking long-overdue action on climate change through the Build Back Better Act. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a package carrying over $550 billion in climate investments to help the nation transition to a more sustainable future while helping communities adapt and become more resilient to the impacts of a warming climate. The Senate is expected to take up consideration of the bill in early December.
The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition urges our Great Lakes delegation to work together to quickly reach a final agreement as the failure to address climate change will only make existing problems worse and limit the long-term impact of this historic infrastructure victory.