Equilibrium & Sustainability

States must target water infrastructure funds to urban, rural areas with real need: lawmakers

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File

States must ensure that federal funds allocated toward improving drinking water end up in communities with concrete needs for such upgrades, providing equal consideration for both urban and rural populations, lawmakers agreed on Tuesday.

At a hearing focused on overhauling America’s drinking water infrastructure, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change discussed how local communities can optimize the relevant funds that will soon be available to them through November’s bipartisan infrastructure bill. 

“Clean, safe drinking water is, in my opinion, a fundamental right,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.). “And the bipartisan infrastructure law provides our nation with the necessary resources to take a long-overdue step towards making safe drinking water a reality for all, including disadvantaged communities that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental contamination.”

Within the $55 billion investment designated for water infrastructure in general, the lawmakers and expert witnesses focused on the $15 billion allocated toward replacing lead service lines and the $9 billion allocated toward eliminating “forever chemicals” — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — from drinking water systems.

The majority of water infrastructure funds will go to State Revolving Fund programs, federal-state partnerships that provide low-cost financing for water infrastructure projects, overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Local water utilities, nonprofits, drinking water providers and others will be eligible to apply for funds, according to the infrastructure bill.

“We are all too aware of water systems struggles, frequent main breaks, massive leaks of treated water, PFAS contaminations and an estimated 10 million lead pipes in service, which are overwhelmingly found in low-income communities and communities of color,” said subcommittee Chairman Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.).

“These challenges, on top of a growing backlog of maintenance projects, put financial stress on local governments and water authorities, which then translates to rate increases for water users,” Tonko added.

Tonko noted, however, that Congress has required that 49 percent of the State Revolving Funds for replacing lead lines be provided as grants and forgivable loans to disadvantaged communities. 

“We know that ramping up state and local governments capacity to administer these funds effectively will have its challenges,” he said. “But we should not allow these challenges, which can and will be overcome by committed states, to overshadow the immense opportunity being provided by this funding.”

Tonko pointed to existing “replicable models,” such as a lead line replacement program in the city of Newark, N.J., as proof that such overhauls “can be done.” 

Kareem Adeem, Newark’s director of Water and Sewer Utilities, said that of the $200 million his city has spent on repairs and replacements of lead service lines, 70 percent of those funds have stayed in the community.

In addition, he explained, the city collaborated with a local union to create an apprenticeship program that led dozens of Newark residents to earn middle-class salaries and hold permanent union jobs.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill is the most significant investment in the nation in my lifetime,” he said. “This bill is an essential step in the right direction to provide safe drinking water to everyone in America.”

While upgrades to water infrastructure — what Adeem described as a “buried asset” — may lack the visibility that comes with highway construction, he argued that an investment in water is “an investment in human capital.”

“We protect the value of lives with drinking water,” Adeem said.

Yet as urban communities look to upgrade obsolete drinking water infrastructure, subcommittee ranking member David McKinley (R-W.Va.) expressed concern that rural communities could be “left out” of the picture.

Noting that the Obama administration cut funds available through the State Revolving Funds for rural areas by half, McKinley called upon communities to be vigilant and committee members to “conduct rigorous oversight.”

“This bipartisan infrastructure bill is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these small and rural communities to get clean, affordable water,” McKinley said. 

Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) expressed similar fears that rural communities could have trouble obtaining these critical funding sources. 

“Will rural communities have access to funding and technical assistance?” Carter asked. “Or could they fall just outside of the definition of disadvantaged communities?”

Pallone agreed with his colleagues across the aisle that while the State Revolving Fund program “has been a critical lifeline” in many places, there are “small, rural and underserved communities that face barriers to access this federal funding source.” 

“Those communities, which often have the greatest needs, will benefit from additional resources and assistance, and we should ensure that they can tap into them,” Pallone said.

As states weigh how to bring tangible improvement to drinking water systems, officials will need to “make sure that this money is being targeted well to the disadvantaged communities that need it,” Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told subcommittee members.

“The state is going to be allocating the money, so we need to make sure that that money is being targeted where it’s needed most — be it a rural community that has an urgent need or be it a large city that may have a pocket of low-income people that really need to get that help,” Olson said.

While also supporting such targeted funding, Jim McGoff, chief operating officer and director of environmental programs at the Indiana Finance Authority, asked lawmakers to “consider expanding our ability to quickly and effectively deploy the historic funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill” and to minimize the associated red tape.

McGoff, who was testifying on behalf of the Council of Infrastructure Financing Authorities, stressed that with regard to lead service lines in particular, local agencies cannot withdraw a single dollar until they provide the EPA with a list of projects.

“Utilities in many states have not begun the process of developing an inventory of lead service lines,” McGoff said. “It would be logical to think we would be able to use these funds to generate a statewide inventory and then begin the process of removing the lead lines.”

In many communities around the country, residents remain unaware that they have a problem with their drinking water until there is a water main break or they learn about serious contamination incidents, according to Olson.

“It’s a lot like a decades-old car that hasn’t had a brake job or oil change in years,” Olson said.

“What it means to Americans is many of us are getting water that’s not safe,” Olson continued. “Many of us are getting water that should be better, even if it meets standards. And these kinds of investments from the bipartisan deal will take us a long way towards helping to fix the problem.”

Tags Biden infrastructure bill Buddy Carter David McKinley Drinking water Frank Pallone Paul Tonko water infrastructure

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