Senate Passes Water and Waste Infrastructure Improvement Bill in Rare Bipartisan Vote

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo Source: Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., file photo, May 6, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

In a rare showing of bipartisan support, the U.S. Senate passed a $35 billion bill that will reauthorize or create a variety of programs to deliver safe drinking water and address antiquated infrastructure and outdated waste management systems throughout the states.

The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021, sponsored by Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and five co-sponsors, passed the Senate 89-2 on April 29. Beginning next year, it will allocate $2.4 billion to state infrastructure systems and gradually increase that amount to $3.25 billion until 2026.

Duckworth introduced the bill in March, and it unanimously passed the Senate’s Environmental and Public Works committee just one day later. A press release from Duckworth’s office explained, “The bill comes after water crises earlier this year across the South—including in Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi—left millions of American families without access to clean water.” Bipartisan co-sponsors are Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-DE.), ranking member Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and committee members Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Ben Cardin (D-MD.), and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

With only two senators, Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT), casting “no” votes, the bill shows that it is possible that both sides of the aisle can agree on some public works projects. But Republicans warn that their votes do not signal support of President Biden’s much larger infrastructure package that will fix highways, rebuild bridges, and upgrade ports, airports and transit systems.

The President says his American Jobs Act is needed to fix “the fragility of our caregiving infrastructure.” The White House Fact sheet on the Bill states, “Our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling,” and “It has never been more important for us to invest in strengthening our infrastructure and competitiveness…”

But Republicans have stated opposition to Biden’s plans to finance his overhauls with tax increases on corporations and those who earn over $400,000 annually. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told The New York Times, “It doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to do the whole thing bipartisan, but we’ll do as much as we can.”

The bill, which still needs approval from the House of Representatives before it can go to the President’s desk, begins by requiring the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate current water conditions and submit a report regarding compliance with existing environmental, health and safety requirements. The report must include analyses of public health and cybersecurity threats as well.

The Act pays particular attention to the needs of small, rural, and disadvantaged communities, such as tribal lands. These communities are often overlooked when it comes to proper sanitation and clean drinking water. It states that the Federal government’s share of programs that will address their needs “shall be 90 percent,” an amount that could go to 100 percent if the EPA determines that an eligible entity is unable to pay or would experience significant financial hardship if required to pay, the non-Federal share. Competitive grant programs for eligible operators of “public water systems” as well as “nonprofit entities” will be instituted.

In light of the national outrage over the dangerously contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan in 2018, the new law doubles funding for the removal of lead from drinking water from $60 million to $100 million per year. In addition, the EPA is required to set up a voluntary school and child care lead testing and compliance monitoring program. President Biden has pledged to replace all of our country’s lead pipes.

On the Senate floor, Duckworth said, “Years of failure to make adequate investments in our water infrastructure has led to a status quo where millions of Americans are served their drinking water through what is essentially a lead straw. This is a dire situation and we must do more to stop it.”

The Flint water crisis, one of our nation’s worst examples of the lead pipe crisis, emphasizes the need for safe drinking water both at home and at school. The new Act will provide funds to correct early warning signs, such as those that appeared in the Flint River for more than a century before the environmental disaster came to a head. The River had long been an unofficial waste disposal site for industrial refuse, raw sewage and agricultural toxins.

Another feature of the act is the creation of a new grant program to fund and fix large and medium-sized drinking water systems.

The law requires that 50% of the funding go to water systems that serve between 10,000 and 100,00 people, with the other half going to systems that bring water to a minimum of 100,000 residents.

The Act contains additional requirements for a variety of pilot programs and it set limits on administrative costs and acceptable fund allocations. Detailed annual reports are also mandated beginning two years after funds are allocated. In addition, it increases investments for recruitment, training and retention facing water and wastewater workers.

Another new feature is a cybersecurity requirement. The Administrator must provide voluntary support to public water systems so they can develop a “Technical Cybersecurity Support Plan” for public water systems.

Another feature is the Act’s emphasis on research that will lead to more clean water. It allocates funds for grants that will establish “research, investigations, training and information” about such pollutants as sludge, anaerobic digesters, methane capture and transfer” and facility upgrades and retrofits necessary to create or improve waste-to-energy systems and other new technologies that transform waste to clean energy.

The bill is now headed to the House of Representatives.

Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University where she taught media law and writing and served as an administrator. Previously, she worked in the Carter White House and U.S. Congress, She is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's from USC.