Democratic lawmakers and advocates are urging Joe Biden to back legislation proposing unprecedented investment in America’s ailing water infrastructure amid the country’s worst crisis in decades that has left millions of people without access to clean, safe, affordable water.
Boil advisories, leaky lead pipes, poisonous forever chemicals, bill arrears and raw sewage are among the urgent issues facing ordinary Americans and municipal utilities after decades of federal government neglect, which has brought the country’s ageing water systems hurtling towards disaster.
The majority of water and wastewater systems nationwide are also unprepared to cope with the climate crisis which is causing increasingly frequent unpredictable extreme weather events like the Arctic freeze that disrupted water and energy supplies across Texas last week.
After decades of underinvestment, a water justice bill will be introduced on Thursday in Congress that proposes a massive injection of federal dollars over the next two decades in order to overhaul the ageing infrastructure, create decent jobs and address longstanding inequalities in access to water and sanitation.
The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (Water) Act, which will be introduced by Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna in the House, is backed by at least 70 other Democratic lawmakers and more than 500 advocacy, labor and faith-based organizations from almost every state.
It comes as more details on the president’s $2tn Build Back Better plan are expected soon, which campaigners hope will prioritize access to water given the president’s promise to put environmental justice at the heart of his administration’s climate and infrastructure policies.
“It’s clear we have a water crisis in every corner of the United States, and if we don’t act soon it will be a disaster,” Lawrence told the Guardian. “What happened in Texas and Flint, Michigan, and so many other places shows us what happens when we don’t take care of our water infrastructure. I want to scream from the rooftop and shake America awake: safe, clean affordable water is necessary to live – without it you will die.”
Federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77% in real terms since its peak in 1977 – leaving local utilities to raise the money through bills and loans that is needed to upgrade infrastructure, comply with safety standards for toxic contaminants such as PFAS, lead and algae blooms, and adapt to extreme weather conditions like drought and floods linked to global heating.
“It is beyond belief that in 2021 American kids are being poisoned by tap water … Not only do we allow corporations to pollute our waterways, but the government has failed to keep up with critically needed improvements to our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure,” said Sanders, who warns that further privatization would drive up prices and reduce access.
The impact of declining government interest has been unequal: people of color, Native Americans and low-income households are disproportionately affected by rising bills and contaminants.
“Detroiters have endured skyrocketing bills, unaffordable rates, mass shutoffs and tax sale foreclosures – and Black and brown community members are facing the brunt of the burden,” said Monica Lewis Patrick, president of We the People of Detroit, one of the groups supporting the bill. “Water is a human right, but our current water systems are a breeding ground for environmental racism and trauma.”
The funding gap is massive: $35bn annually for 20 years is needed just to comply with safety regulations, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It could cost as much as $944bn to make water and wastewater plants climate resilient.
Part of the problem is that for years, maintenance and clean-up projects were deferred by utilities, without squirreling away money or planning for the climate crisis.
Last week, about 10 million Texans did not have safe tap water after freezing temperatures damaged large parts of the state’s water infrastructure. Hundreds of boil advisories were issued for towns and cities as a drop in water pressure threatened safety.
Water supplies and sanitation have been disrupted over and over in recent decades – in Louisiana, Puerto Rico, California, Ohio and elsewhere – after hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other natural disasters, revealing the calamitous lack of preparedness to deal with climate chaos, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The federal government’s absence has left many public utilities in crisis and in need of urgent relief, according to Adam Kratz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA).
“The pandemic and Texas have shown that we need a massive program of long-term funding to rebuild our country’s interconnected infrastructure and bring it up to 21st-century standards, with water as a key focus.”
The Water Act, which was first introduced in 2016, would provide $35bn annually for states to allocate to publicly owned utilities for drinking water and sewer infrastructure repairs, as well as funds to replace lead service lines and filters for toxic compounds from drinking water – creating as many as a million decently paid jobs a year.
Households could get grants for septic tanks, and $1bn would be ring fenced for schools to address lead and other safety problems. Tribes and rural communities would be among those prioritized, as well as low-income households to prevent shutoffs due to unaffordable bills.
So far, $638m of Covid relief funds have gone to help households struggling with their bills with another $500m expected. To put this in perspective, in California alone debt owed on water bills stands at $1bn and one in every eight households is currently in arrears.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Action, said: “From the plague of water shutoffs during a pandemic to the recent heartbreaking scenes across the south, it has become desperately clear that our country is in a water crisis. Grave crises require robust solutions, and this is just what the Water Act provides.”