Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Embraces Old and New Solutions for Clean Water

By Maureen Cunningham, Katy Hansen, Phoebe Higgins and Sri Vedachalam

Politicians, as they say, campaign in poetry and govern in prose, meaning their actual policy proposals become more narrow once in office. President Biden might be going the other direction with his administration’s $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan, which is nearly twice his $1.3 trillion campaign proposal on infrastructure. 

To those of us who work to protect clean water, the $111 billion outlined in Biden’s proposal to ensure that clean, safe drinking water is “a right in all communities,” feels a little bit like a bridge between the old and the new. The old, we hope, is the end of toxic lead service lines that were largely installed about a century ago throughout large swaths of our country, with Biden’s proposed influx of $45 billion to remove “100 percent of lead pipes and service lines.” The new is another $66 billion to address and modernize our water infrastructure systems, including green infrastructure and stormwater, tackle the issue of emerging contaminants, and ultimately, place climate change and resilience front and center moving forward. 

There are clear ways the Biden administration may want to fortify this plan, especially by distributing funds equitably and by reconciling funding with strong regulatory measures.

Lead in Drinking Water

While the former administration had an ambitious goal of removing the threat of toxic lead in drinking water within ten years, President Biden might actually achieve it. Biden’s promise of $45 billion to address an approximate $50 billion need (at an average cost of $5,000 to remove each service line) is close to the full projected cost of removal of an estimated 6-10 million lead pipes around the country. As Biden pointed out with the announcement of his plan, a mere $5,000 investment in replacing one lead service line can yield up to $22,000 in individual health benefits, for a total of $205 billion in societal health benefits

Yet, Biden’s funding is more likely to get spent if water systems with lead pipes actually have an obligation to replace them. While the previous administration advanced the revised Lead and Copper Rule just before the end of its term, the rule’s effective date has recently been extended by the Biden administration to allow for additional public input beginning this month. It now makes good policy sense to ensure that the revised federal regulations – including any additional revisions that the Biden administration undertakes –  are in place by the time the funds reach the water systems for which they are intended. 

To remove 100 percent of lead service lines, it’s not only just about funding: we need also to ensure water systems are accountable, incentivized to meet the goal, and have a timeline to get it done. We hope to see some of the best revisions stay in place, namely closing some of the loopholes related to sampling, treatment of unknown pipes, tightening of restrictions for small systems, and effectively prohibiting partial replacements, as well as the mandated lead service line inventories and enhanced public education and notification. On top of that, we believe the administration should, from the onset, encourage the use of the federal funding for full lead service line replacement, thereby eliminating the other barrier to removal, which is the private portion of these service lines. Freeing up funds for full service line replacement also addresses the problem of equity across different households and their ability to pay, which often hits communities of color, immigrant communities and low-income communities the hardest. In the long term, to speed up the process of lead pipe removal and once the EPA decides to open up the rule again for review, the action level should be lowered, the mandatory replacement rate should be increased not decreased, and there should be more targeted, proactive risk communication and outreach to high-risk communities. 

Funding Mechanisms

Biden’s proposal can strongly address water equity across our communities, but it’s important to ensure the funding reaches the communities most in need of assistance. Distributing the funding in the American Jobs Act through the State Revolving Fund (SRF) program, currently the largest source of federal funding for water systems, requires states to contribute a 20 percent match unless yet-to-be-revealed policy proposals change that. Some states currently struggle to match their allotment of the roughly $2.5 billion currently appropriated for SRFs each year. Finding mandated state matching funds for an order of magnitude of more funding will be very difficult, but admittedly, so too will be giving states funding with no required incentive to match. Disbursements through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) grant program, also mentioned in Biden’s plan, do not require state matches. 

Once states have the funds in hand, they will also need to think carefully about the funding mechanisms to assistance systems. Those with limited financial resources need grants, not loans, to invest in infrastructure. The systems that serve low-income communities cannot raise sufficient revenue through rate increases to repay loans. Ensuing that states use the funds in the American Jobs Plan to provide grants will help ensure those who most need the funds can access them.  

States need to target allocation to the neediest communities. Agencies can use widely available data on race/ethnicity, income, and poverty from the census to identify communities with limited financial resources and then create rules to prioritize these communities in allocation. Low-resource communities have less technical, managerial, and financial capacity to apply for funds and implement projects, so states should design simple processes, with sufficient technical assistance, to help process paperwork and design projects. In some cases, third-parties could help.

PFAS in Drinking Water

The $11 billion promised by Biden to monitor and remediate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, in drinking water represents a major – but unfortunately insufficient – federal investment to address this widespread problem across the country. Like the problem of lead in drinking water, PFAS has received much more attention in recent years because of high profile contamination events in Michigan, West Virginia, Vermont, and New York State, to name a few. And also like the problem of lead, the true extent of this issue is still largely unknown, since the 3,000-5,000 PFAS chemicals are unregulated by the federal government, with only six of them even going through the federal monitoring process known as the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 3 (UCMR3) and another 29 of them slated this year for UCMR5

While states have implemented their own drinking water standards or Maximum Contaminant Levels in a patchwork approach across the county, the EPA only recently, under the Biden administration, signaled an intent to begin the process to regulate PFOA and PFAS. A more comprehensive approach to address the 3,000-5,000 chemicals in this class is sorely needed, potentially capturing more of them in a combined MCL and setting a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal of 0 to acknowledge that no level of these chemicals is safe. 

What’s more, the cost to regulate these chemicals is enormous. For example, New York State’s recent MCLs for PFOA and PFOS of 10 ppt respectively, far below the EPA’s guidance of 70 ppt, was initially estimated to cost approximately $1.5 billion for monitoring and treatment technology; the cost around the country will of course be incrementally larger. In short, $11 billion to address this issue is simply a drop in the bucket in terms of the funding and sweeping regulation that is needed to begin to put a dent in the PFAS problem, not to mention the thousands of other emerging contaminants in our environment.

Rural Water and Wastewater Systems

With 15 percent of the US population served by private wells for drinking water and 25 percent by septic systems for wastewater, it is notable that these systems were called out in the Biden plan. What’s more, rural systems are often plagued by poor design, maintenance issues and lack of monitoring – which ultimately means that many of them fail to protect public health. A significant investment in these decentralized water and wastewater systems is therefore an essential part of any plan to achieve clean water in this country.

Climate Resilience

The American Jobs Plan draws a clear line from the previous administration in outlining the beginning of a plan to build our collective climate resilience, through infrastructure improvements, but also by protecting people on the frontlines of climate impacts and by turning to nature-based infrastructure, green infrastructure, and restoration activities as viable solutions. Acknowledging the increasing severity of flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, drought, and other climate-related risks is a clear step forward in this plan, and building this into clean water protection is essential.

Restoration

Biden’s infrastructure plan also proposes a $16 billion investment of much-needed restoration for abandoned or disused oil and gas wells and coal and hard-rock mining lands. Funding to address the devastating watershed effects of un-reclaimed mines has been falling short for decades. 

There are at least two areas where additional action can help leverage this core investment in mine land reclamation. First, the costs for coal mine reclamation alone total at least $12 billion (probably much more), so more investment will be needed. The Abandoned Mine Land fee that funds cleanup of pre-1977 coal mines expires this year and needs to be reauthorized by Congress. Second, coal mines operating since 1977 are supposed to pay for their own cleanup costs. However, as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels, mining companies are declaring bankruptcy, which puts this funding in jeopardy. We need to resolve the loophole that leaves clean-up costs under-funded when mining companies declare bankruptcy.

In summary, the Biden plan as a whole is far-reaching in its approach – laying out a path to clean water that covers everything from old lead pipes to new climate risks, rural systems to urban vulnerabilities, restoration to climate resilience, green to grey infrastructure, and plumbers and pipefitters to frontline communities. The plan is remarkable for its vision to wipe out the problem of lead in one fell swoop and for its rightful centering on equity for communities that have long bore the brunt of water injustice and inequity. Where Biden’s plan may fall short, at this point, is the need for an equal focus on strong regulations, well-devised planning to ensure the funding reaches the communities who need it most, and enough funding – or innovative leveraging of existing funding – to ensure that this all-encompassing plan becomes a reality in achieving the right to clean water for all communities.

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