Senate Passes Water Infrastructure Bill With Bipartisan Backing

April 29, 2021

The Senate passed a bipartisan drinking water and wastewater infrastructure bill that would authorize $35 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects, one component of the larger infrastructure effort being negotiated by lawmakers.

"The bill represents the solid work that comes out of good-faith negotiations," said Environment and Public Works ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). "I hope that as we move forward on other infrastructure packages, we remember this moment." The Senate passed the bill (S. 914) Thursday with broad bipartisan support on a 89-2 vote.

Attention now turns to the House, where two committees-Energy and Commerce and Transportation and Infrastructure-have jurisdiction over drinking water and wastewater, respectively. The current House proposals contain more money overall for those programs than the Senate legislation.

The big-ticket infrastructure proposals from the Biden administration and Senate Republicans both would invest significantly in water infrastructure upgrades. Biden's plan calls for $56 billion for modernizing the wastewater, drinking water and stormwater systems, and an additional $45 billion to replace 100% of lead services lines throughout the country. The GOP counterproposal to Biden's plan, led by Capito, is more in line with the funding levels in the bill passed by the Senate on Thursday.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a key architect of the Senate measure, said he didn’t think ultimately there were going to be "major differences" between the House and Senate on reauthorizing the drinking water and wastewater programs. "I’m optimistic that we will be able to reconcile the differences," said the Maryland Democrat, who served in the House for 10 terms.

He said the idea was "not necessarily" to wait on the legislation to roll it into a larger infrastructure package. "Let’s get this done, let’s get it to the president, get it signed, get it moving. There are some provisions in this bill that deal with resiliency, that deal with portability. It’d be good to get it done sooner rather than later."

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is intent on moving his legislation (H.R. 1915) through the House "and getting it signed into law because clean water can’t wait," he said in a statement.

DeFazio’s bill would authorize $50 billion over the next five years to upgrade wastewater infrastructure and water quality, with the lion’s share—$40 billion—going to the chronically underfunded Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

Legislation from House Energy and Commerce Democrats’ (H.R. 2741) includes $51.6 billion to protect drinking water by extending and increasing funding for the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund and other programs and investing in the replacement of lead service lines.

The Senate measure would reauthorize two critical Environmental Protection Agency programs—the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund—which provide financial aid to localities’ drinking water systems and to state safe water programs, as well as loan financing and assistance for communities for a range of water infrastructure projects.

"Part of the problem with water infrastructure is no one sees it," said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a lead co-sponsor of the legislation. "Out of sight and out of mind." But the government has to invest in upgrading it before there’s another crisis, she said.

The legislation would reauthorize the drinking water fund at $2.4 billion in fiscal 2022, gradually increasing that amount to $3.25 billion in fiscal years 2025 and 2026 for a total of $14.7 billion. It would increase the minimum percentage of those funds that must go to disadvantaged communities from 6% to 12%.

The clean water fund would be reauthorized at the same funding levels between fiscal years 2022 and 2026 as the drinking water fund. The legislation also would re-up the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act through 2026 at the current funding level of $50 million per year.

The bill would authorize a pilot program at the Environmental Protection Agency to assist low-income households’ access to affordable clean water services, similar to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Senators approved a few amendments to the measure, including a bipartisan proposal from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that would increase the number of households, including those who rely on private wells, that are eligible for EPA assistance to address "forever chemicals" and other toxins. Senators also approved on voice vote an amendment from Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) that would require the EPA administrator to conduct a study on boil water advisories.

"This legislation shows that water infrastructure investment is a bipartisan issue, and it can serve as an important foundation for including water as a major component in a broad infrastructure package," said Adam Krantz, chief executive officer of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. "We look forward to further work with the Senate, the House and the Biden-Harris Administration on enacting historic water infrastructure investments."

By:  Kellie Lunney
Source: Bloomberg