With all the bad news about Ukraine and other crises greeting us at every turn, there is good news to share that is important to millions of Americans. The bipartisan Infrastructure Act that was signed into law just before Thanksgiving time last year – often referred to as “the BIL” or officially the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – will invest around $30 billion to address some of the urgent backlog in repairs and upgrades needed for the nation’s drinking. water systems. I am testifying about this important law before the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in a March 29 hearing.
As a result of the BIL, drinking water system upgrades will be funded in communities across the country. The lead pipes called “lead connections” that connect the houses to the main water main on the street will be pulled out of the ground and replaced. These investments will protect the health of our families and create good paying jobs for tens of thousands of Americans.
Decades of neglect and disinvestment have resulted in a huge backlog of much needed repairs to our drinking water systems. Congress and the Biden administration have shown the courage and the will to make this truly important and historic investment in infrastructure that will pay dividends in the future. We must ensure that these funds, especially grants, are prioritized to help disadvantaged communities that need it most.
BIL will invest $15 billion to help eliminate lead service lines across the country. These lead pipes threaten the health of tens of millions of Americans, especially children and low-income communities. BIL’s investment will significantly solve this problem; additional funding, including the $10 billion for lead in drinking water included in the House-passed reconciliation bill (HR 5376), is needed.
BIL is also investing $9 billion to address emerging contaminants in drinking water, primarily to help address the PFAS contamination crisis. An additional $11.7 billion is being invested through the state’s Clean Water Revolving Fund for clean water priorities.
Investments in infrastructure create good jobs. For example, a 2021 study by Environmental Entrepreneurs and United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters (UA) found that investing in replacing our lead service lines alone would create 560,800 years of employment, providing well paid to American workers. Newark New Jersey has shown how it can be done, replacing 23,000 lead service lines citywide in less than 3 years by hiring living local residents who have been trained by a local union.
The clean water that we all take for granted in the United States cannot be taken for granted. Much of our nation’s water infrastructure looks like a rusty, decades-old car that hasn’t been serviced or had its oil or brakes changed in years. It may still barely work, but we need to make major investments to upgrade and repair it, otherwise it will gradually die and may even fail catastrophically.
BIL’s investments of $30 billion are historic, even though, according to industry estimates, $1,000 billion will be needed to meet drinking water infrastructure needs. The deep level of disrepair means more, as included in the House Reconciliation Bill, is needed.
Despite our successes and efforts to date, contamination of drinking water still has devastating effects. Our 2021 NRDC study found that there are 9 to 12 million lead service lines, lead contamination of school drinking water is widespread, and tens of millions, possibly more than 100 million Americans drink PFAS in tap water.
The CDC estimates that 7.1 to 12 million Americans are sick each year from tap water and other waters contaminated with pathogens. This does not include the effects of toxic substances. And the NRDC released a report analyzing EPA data and found that tens of millions of people are served by water systems that violate EPA health standards.
There are three underlying causes for these persistent problems: (1) underinvestment in our water supply infrastructure, so that water supply systems are too often dependent on outdated treatment and distribution systems and inadequate; (2) a broken Safe Drinking Water Act that leaves widespread and dangerous contaminants unregulated like PFAS and allows weak enforcement of existing drinking water standards; and (3) poor, if any, controls on many major water polluters. Often low-income areas do not have access to safe drinking water – and for 2 million people, for example on some indigenous lands, in settlements along the US border, in the rural south and in pockets Appalachia, they have no running water or sanitation at all.
Part of the solution is for us to make sure we don’t contaminate our water before we use it. Protecting water sources helps preserve health and reduce treatment costs. We should do everything we can to reduce water pollution in the first place, so that we don’t need to clean it from our tap water in our drinking water treatment plants. Additionally, we need to ensure that we are prepared for future threats to our water supplies due to climate change. As I mentioned in a previous blog, last year’s disaster in Texas with widespread water and power outages due to an extreme storm should teach us that we are not prepared for what we know to be in our future. Water infrastructure is increasingly faced with extreme weather conditions and droughts that present real risks.
We envision a day when every person in this great nation – whether a resident of a big city, a small rural town, a tribal community or an isolated poor and underserved community – drink safe and affordable tap water. BIL is taking a major historic step to help us move towards this goal, but more will be needed.
Our recommendations :
- Implement the BIL by investing first in the communities that need it most.
- Invest additional resources in repairing our water infrastructure, with particular attention to affordability and the needs of low-income and disproportionately affected communities.
- Fix the lead in our water, including removing all lead service lines, fixing the lead and copper rule, and addressing lead in schools and daycares.
- Fix the broken Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure controls on key contaminants like the PFAS class.
- Protect water sources to reduce infrastructure costs and damage to health and the environment.
- Protect water infrastructure from extreme weather events and possible terrorist attacks.
- Invest in technologies such as broad-spectrum processing and real-time monitoring and other advanced monitoring.
- Let citizens act immediately to deal with an imminent and substantial danger to health.
- Vigorously enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act.