February 23, 2021

Chairs DeFazio, Napolitano Statements from Hearing on the Urgent Need to Invest in America’s Wastewater Infrastructure

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 F. Napolitano (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled, “Building Back Better: The Urgent Need for Investment in America’s Wastewater Infrastructure.” Video of DeFazio and Napolitano’s opening statements are here and here. More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Madam Chairwoman, and congratulations on holding the first hearing of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment for the 117th Congress.

Today’s hearing will highlight the tremendous infrastructure needs facing this nation, as well as the consequences to everyday Americans from Congress’s failure to invest in our water-related infrastructure systems.

As I have mentioned many times before, 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.

Cities, like Flint, Detroit, and Toledo, are now more well-known for water contamination than likely any other issue. Just a quick internet search for the term “sewer overflow” will produce hundreds of other American cities—large and small—that are operating in a 21st Century economy with antiquated, undersized, or crumbling water-related infrastructure. Even in my own district, the Sunset Bay State Park near Coos Bay was listed as one of America’s Dirtiest Beaches because of local sewer overflows and stormwater runoff.

All these stories remind us of what we already should know—that our nation’s network of water infrastructure is aging, outdated, and in desperate need of repair. In addition, 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.

According to the most recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Water Needs Survey, States have documented a need for $271 billion in investment over the next 20 years—that’s almost $14 billion needed annually for wastewater infrastructure—and it is likely this estimate, which is now almost a decade old, significantly underestimates the REAL need.

And yet, do you know how much the Federal government is ACTUALLY investing in wastewater infrastructure annually?  About $1.6 billion in the fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill.

At our current rate of federal investment, it will take us almost 170 years just to address existing wastewater infrastructure needs, and that doesn’t include investments to address the challenges posed by climate change, extreme weather events, and the resilience of our water utilities. 

Last Congress, this Committee and the House passed multiple proposals to restore the federal commitment to investing in our Nation’s wastewater infrastructure. H.R. 2, the Moving Forward Act, included $40 billion in federal investment in the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to help address the $271 billion backlog in clean water needs. It also established minimum allocations for rural and small communities for water infrastructure investment.

The legislation attempted to address affordability concerns by ensuring a minimum of 10 percent of annual Clean Water SRF funding would be in the form of grants or other financial assistance to help communities ensure the affordability of wastewater service to households that may have difficulty making ends meet.

H.R. 2 would have boosted resilience and green infrastructure investments by requiring states to use a minimum of 15 percent of their annual SRF capitalization grants for natural or nature-based approaches to addressing local water quality challenges. The legislation encouraged the use of technologies that recapture and reuse energy produced from the treatment of wastewater, such as methane recapture.

To address concerns with resiliency of wastewater treatment works, the legislation established a new clean water grant authority for communities to assess and address vulnerabilities of wastewater utilities to manmade or natural disasters.

The legislation attempted to address the concerns of inequity on tribal lands, by establishing a statutory allocation formula for the distribution of funds among the states and codified the allocation for tribes and the U.S. territories.

H.R. 2 also would have helped prevent the discharge of industrial chemicals and put $1 billion in new Federal assistance towards helping communities address ongoing contamination of waterways by polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or “forever chemicals.”

Clean, safe, and reliable water is a basic human right and we should all fight against efforts to weaken those protections.

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

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

Thank you, Madam Chairwoman.

Chair Napolitano:

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 $271 billion of investment over the next 20 years to bring their wastewater treatment systems to a state of good repair. The need for sanitation infrastructure on tribal lands totals $2.78 billion.

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, we must give them a voice as 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 all 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 all communities to develop more cost-effective, long-term plans to meeting local water quality challenges.  Getting the message directly to those involved is also a challenge.

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 and get them to the table to access this financing.

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 funding resources. 

We are planning to soon re-introduce the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act to reauthorize the Clean Water SRF, and I urge all our members to support this 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.

Rural communities face a unique set of challenges. They tend to be small and do not have a rate base large enough to shoulder expensive, major infrastructure projects while maintaining affordable rates. Often, rural communities do not have the technical expertise necessary to design wastewater projects or even to complete the technical documents necessary to apply for funding.

In addition, rural communities may have to apply to multiple state or federal programs to obtain the assistance they need, and the duplicative application requirements can make it costly and time consuming to complete the application process. Last Congress, one of our witnesses told us about the unique challenges her rural community in Lowndes, Alabama faced – and still face today. We need to look at new and innovative ways to make progress on addressing the needs of our rural communities.

We also need explore whether the Federal government can play a long-term role in helping subsidize the cost of clean water for households in poverty, as we do today for household heating and cooling costs through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. In the COVID relief package passed at the end of last Congress, we included $638 million in ratepayer assistance funds for families struggling to pay their water bills. We should look at whether or not this program should be continued on a permanent basis.

In addition, we should look at how we can improve upon existing water reuse and recycling programs to help those communities where water is a sparse commodity.

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 where 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.