March 07, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Napolitano Statements from Hearing on, “The Clean Water State Revolving Fund: How Federal Infrastructure Investment Can Help Communities Modernize Water Infrastructure and Address Affordability Challenges”

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Grace Napolitano (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled: “The Clean Water State Revolving Fund: How Federal Infrastructure Investment Can Help Communities Modernize Water Infrastructure and Address Affordability Challenges.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Madam Chairwoman, and congratulations on holding the first hearing of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

Today’s hearing continues to tell the story on both the tremendous infrastructure needs facing this nation, as well as on the consequences to everyday Americans from our failure to invest in our water-related infrastructure systems.

It is important to remember that in the days before enactment of the Clean Water Act, our nation’s waters were so polluted that they typically were unsafe for swimming, were unable to support life, or they literally caught fire.

Recognizing that we needed to do things differently and that pollution does not respect political or state boundaries, Congress enacted a comprehensive, national water pollution control program and provided States and communities with substantial funding to help  address local water quality challenges.

In the years immediately following the Clean Water Act, significant progress was made in cleaning up our waters.  Yet, in recent years, the importance of safe, reliable, and affordable water systems has, again, become front page news, all across the country.

In Flint, Michigan, a series of bad decisions, aging infrastructure, and poor local water quality resulted in the contamination of household drinking water supply for almost an entire city.

In Toledo, Ohio, nutrient water quality contamination in Lake Erie forced the third largest city in the state to warn its citizens not to drink or even brush their teeth with their own water for days.

In Charleston, West Virginia, a release of a toxic chemical immediately upstream of its drinking water intake shut down the state capital’s drinking water supply for close to a week.

Closer to home, just this past month, in Coos Bay, Oregon, an intense rainstorm that dropped over 5 inches of rain over two days overwhelmed our sewer system and caused the release of over 36,000 gallons of sewer overflows into Coos Bay through the storm drain system.

What all of these stories remind us is what we already should know – that our nation’s network of water infrastructure is aging, outdated, and in desperate need of repair. We also now recognize that our water-related infrastructure is woefully inadequate to adapt to a changing climate, and to the extreme weather events and coastal storms that have become the norm.

Numerous studies and reports have documented the poor national condition of our water infrastructure and the growing financial gap between infrastructure needs and available resources.

These stories also demonstrate how our communities, both large and small, remain vulnerable to losing their basic water and sanitation services at a moment’s notice, and how we need to invest in the protection and resilience of our water utilities.  That is why I was pleased to join with the Chairwoman and Congressmen Don Young and John Katko in a bill to reauthorize increased appropriations for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program.

Finally, these examples highlight how essential comprehensive Clean Water Act authorities are to protect the health of our citizens, our local economies, and our environment. Clean, safe, and reliable water should be a basic human right – and we should all, vigilantly, fight against efforts to weaken those protections, including those pursued by the current administration.

Lastly, Madam Chairwoman, I am pleased that today’s hearing highlights the growing affordability gap for basic water and sewer services. 

As the Federal government has pulled back on the share of Federal funds it contributes to local water and sewer projects, rate payers are typically asked to fill in the gap.

While recent reports noted how the costs of water services are generally low when compared to other utilities, these costs also represent a higher share of income for those households in the lowest 20 percent of income – those with the least ability to pay.

Today, several of our witnesses will provide the Committee real-life examples on the consequences of unaffordable water services – from the threat of thousands of water and sewer shutoff notices issued in the City of Detroit to the re-emergence of hookworm – a parasite that thrives in areas without basic sanitation – here in the United States.

We need to do better.

Communities throughout the country are generally trying to do the right thing – to ensure clean, safe, and reliable water services to their citizens.

However, we, in Congress must do our part as well – to ensure that we meet the Clean Water Act’s “fishable and swimmable” goals we established for ourselves almost 50 years ago, and to do so in a manner that is affordable for all hard-working American families.

Thank you, Madam Chairwoman.

Chair Napolitano:

Good Morning.  Welcome the first meeting of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment for the 116th Congress. I call this hearing to order.

Today’s hearing focuses on the tremendous clean water infrastructure needs facing our country, and on the challenges facing both our communities – large and small, urban, rural and tribal – as well as our American families, in addressing these needs.

It is a privilege to serve as the Chairwoman of this Subcommittee, and I am pleased to be joined by my colleague and the Ranking Member, Congressman Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, Arkansas.  We had a good meeting a few weeks ago, and I look forward to working with you this Congress.

I also welcome the new members to the Subcommittee Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida, Rep. Salud Carbajal of California, Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher of Texas, Rep. Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, Rep. Antonio Delgado of New York, Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, Rep. Harley Rouda of California, Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Rep. Gary J. Palmer of Alabama, and Rep. Jennifer González-Colón of Puerto Rico.

This Subcommittee will have a busy agenda in the 116th Congress. I pledge to do my best to run the Subcommittee with fairness and with mutual respect for every Member – consistent with the long-standing, bipartisan successes of this Committee.

We have an ambitious but achievable agenda this Congress.

We will seek to find a legislative mechanism to ensure that collections for Harbor Maintenance are spent annually.

We will hold hearings on WRDA 2018 implementation, and lay the groundwork for enactment of a new WRDA bill in 2020.  As part of these discussions, we will look at ways to make our communities more resilient, by learning about how we can use natural infrastructure, water recycling, and other tools.

We will strive to enact a bipartisan water infrastructure financing bill that not only reauthorizes the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), but also seeks to address the affordability challenges facing all of our communities.

Finally, we will renew our constitutional obligation to exercise Congressional oversight over implementation of the laws within our Subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

Now, to the topic of this hearing – today, our nation’s network of sewers, stormwater conveyances, and treatment facilities is aging, often outdated, and, in many places, not meeting the needs of our communities or water quality standards.

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave America’s wastewater infrastructure a grade of a D+ in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, communities report a need of almost $300 billion of investment over the next 20 years to bring their wastewater treatment systems to a state of good repair.

Yet, these statistics only tell half the story.

As noted by our witnesses here today, many communities also face the challenge of ensuring that water and sewer utilities remain affordable to those living in the community. 

As communities of all sizes seek to continuously improve the quality, safety, and reliability of their water utilities, they often struggle to also address challenges of declining rate bases, lower-income households, and other competing local needs.

All of these factors compel us to find ways to make water quality improvements more affordable to our communities.

Congress has already taken significant steps to help meet this challenge.  Through enactment of integrated planning legislation and the promotion of nature-based or green infrastructure alternatives to addressing local water quality challenges, we have provided tools to communities to develop more cost-effective, long-term plans to meeting local water quality challenges.

However, more needs to be done.

We have to find ways to make sure the cost of Federal financing is affordable to all of our communities.

One significant step that is long overdue is to reauthorize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund – a goal that has eluded this Congress for almost 30 years.

 As witnesses note, this program is universally important to providing affordable financing to urban and rural communities alike, and its successes are typically limited only by a lack of available resources. 

On Tuesday, I was pleased to join Chairman DeFazio, Congressman Don Young, and Congressman John Katko in introducing H.R. 1497, the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act to reauthorize the Clean Water SRF, and I urge all of our members to support this bipartisan effort to address local water quality challenges.

However, for those communities where a State Revolving Fund loan is still not enough to address local affordability needs, we need to ensure other tools are available.  We need to fund targeted clean water grants, such as those authorized for combined and sanitary sewer overflows and stormwater capture and reuse in the 2018 Water Resources Development Act.

We also need to explore whether the Federal government can play a role in helping subsidize the cost of clean water at a household level, as we do today for household heating and cooling costs through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

Many States and communities run similar rate assistance programs today, but I believe the Federal government can take a greater role to reduce the cost of water to our American families, and I hope to discuss this issue further today.

Before us, we have a distinguished panel of witnesses that can talk about real-world examples of where our network of clean water infrastructure works, where it does not, and what we can do better. 

I urge all of our members to pay attention, listen to their stories and to reflect on the real challenges American families face, every day, in obtaining clean, safe, and affordable water and wastewater services.

At this time, I am pleased to yield to my colleague, the Ranking Member of our Subcommittee, Mr. Westerman, for any thoughts he may have.