Senate Approves $35B to Repair US Water Infrastructure

Wastewater system repairs, new water connections in low-income and rural communities and safer drinking water take center stage in Biden’s first infrastructure bill to launch out of the Senate.

In this Oct. 12, 2018 file photo, water contaminated with arsenic, lead and zinc flows from a pipe out of the Lee Mountain mine and into a holding pond near Rimini, Montana. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The cup runneth over on Capitol Hill Thursday as the U.S. Senate approved, 89-2, $35 billion for upgrades to the nation’s aging water and wastewater infrastructure in addition to funding for grants servicing water lines in low-income communities.

The hefty investment built into the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act will go to the Environmental Protection Agency and will be parceled out over the next five years. Over 40% of the bill’s funds are specifically tailored to overhaul the water systems in low-income, rural and tribal lands as well as those in communities predominantly of color.

According to a 2019 report by the National Resources Defense Council, it was race, ethnicity and a person’s language that had the “strongest relationship to slow and inadequate enforcement” of laws already on the books to preserve safe drinking water standards.

“Drinking water systems that have been in violation of the law for a number of years were 40% more likely to be in communities of color than in places where whites make up the majority,” the study found.

A boon for the nearly two million Americans whose homes lack a functioning water connection, Thursday’s bill authorized $1 billion to begin making and restoring those connections.

The legislation — which received widespread bipartisan support when it launched out of committee with a unanimous 20-0 vote earlier this year — is the first infrastructure bill to clear the Senate floor under the Biden administration. The legislation will go to the House next.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah voted against the bill.

“The Clean Water State Revolving Fund has not been reauthorized for 35 years,” remarked Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, ahead of the vote. “And now it is set to expire at the end of this year. Somebody should do something. And that somebody is us.”

The legislation was first introduced by Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who said she was moved to act after seeing rancid brown water slosh about in a baby bottle brought to Congress by a desperate mother who said she, like so many others in Flint, Michigan, was unable to provide her children with clean, safe drinking water.

Lead levels in water pipes and plumbing throughout the U.S. are also unacceptably high, the Democrat urged.

“There is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood, yet six million service lines are still contaminated,” Duckworth said. “And that’s despite the ban 30 years ago. But as of 2019, the CDC found more than half of children under 6 still have elevated levels of lead in their blood.”

Under former President Donald Trump, the EPA updated decades-old rules for lead and copper contamination. In sum, the updates included expanded testing for lead in pipes at schools and at day care centers. It also established new thresholds for contamination levels, but it failed to address the root cause of the contamination: the very pipes carrying the water.

That’s what her bill would do, Duckworth said Thursday.

“It does more than fix what is broken. This legislation actually does … ‘build back better’ by fortifying water infrastructure for a new and worsening climate reality,” she said, referencing President Joe Biden’s own slogan for his massive $2.2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which Congress is still negotiating.

In the meantime, the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act can open some of the funding floodgates.

“We cannot only pour money into fixing our roads without fixing the pipes beneath them,” Senator Duckworth said. “We have to stop waiting for our infrastructure to fail us before we invest in it.”

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