Drinking water and clean water agencies are looking to President Joe Biden’s $1.9-trillion COVID-19 stimulus plan for additional relief as many continue to provide service to millions of customers unable to pay their bills. And those delinquencies hurt even more than they would have in the past because federal and state money for water infrastructure has been declining in recent years.

Steve Dye, the Water Environment Federation’s director of legislative affairs, says, “The majority of utilities generally haven’t had to make major cuts for immediate planning or immediate funding needs yet, because [most] have reserves to draw from.”

But Dye says that most water utilities have begun to tap into reserves, and “are making some decisions regarding long-term projects.” For example, a utility may choose to delay a project planned to begin in 2022 by a year or more, he says.

Washington, D.C.-based DC Water has not had to rely on reserves, according to David L. Gadis, its CEO and general manager. But DC Water has seen consumption dip and late or delinquent payments from ratepayers rise. As a result, Gadis says, “We have delayed some infrastructure investments, including small-diameter water and sewer projects [and are] prioritizing current projects underway … that are mandated, those that are grant-funded and critical work.” 

Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan includes $5 billion for home water and energy, costs and arrears. The relief bill will likely be attached to the budget resolution during reconciliation, a process that allows approval by a simple majority vote in the Senate. That cuts down on GOP lawmakers’ ability to filibuster the package. Reconciliation may only be used once per fiscal year, and all amendments and supplementary packages must be germane to the budget. Lawmakers in both chambers approved the budget resolution for fiscal 2022 on Feb. 5, and Democratic leaders say they hope to pass the coronavirus relief bill by the end of February through the reconciliation process as part of the budgetary proceedings.

Biden’s Relief Bill

A group of GOP senators proposed a more modest $618-billion relief bill, but Biden said Feb. 5 the dismal unemployment numbers for January have prompted him to push to use reconciliation to enact his full relief package. Biden said, “I’d like to be doing [a relief bill] with the support of Republicans. … But they’re just not willing to go as far as I think we have to go.”

Officials from several water sector groups say water utilities have been hit hard by the pandemic. “Aging water infrastructure and expanded regulatory mandates are expected to put additional upward pressure on local water rates in the coming years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only added additional stress to households facing rising water bills,” said Diane VanDe Hei, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies’ CEO.

Ratepayers and water agencies got some help in the December COVID-19 relief measure that then-President Donald Trump signed Dec. 27. In that legislation, lawmakers allocated $638 million for a new Low-Income Water Customer Assistance Program (LIWCAP), which provides short-term relief to low-income households. It is similar to other federal programs that provide federal money for people in need of help paying for food and home heating.

The program will provide the funds to the Dept. of Health and Human Services, which will disseminate them.

LIWCAP’s creation was “significant, both in the [funding] number, and it was also the first time Congress has ever appropriated federal funding for ratepayer assistance,” for water utilities, says Kristina Surfus, National Association of Clean Water Agencies’ managing director for government affairs. “However,” she adds, “it’s not near the actual need, estimated around $8 billion in outstanding bills.” 

Water utilities also would like to see more federal funds targeted for water infrastructure. Dye says, “We haven’t gotten a lot of traction” yet for including such funding in the proposed new relief package. But he’s hopeful lawmakers will consider adding the funds to that bill or a broader infrastructure package. Surfus also says that leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees have expressed interest in developing a comprehensive water infrastructure bill in coming months.