In a rare example of bipartisanship, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has unanimously approved legislation to provide about $35 billion over five years for drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure projects around the country.

The measure, which the EPW committee cleared on March 24 by a 20-0 vote, has as its centerpiece $14.65 billion for each of the two main Environmental Protection Agency water infrastructure programs—the drinking water and Clean Water state revolving funds, or SRFs.

[View webcast of Senate committee's voting session here.]

Clean Water SRFs finance wastewater treatment projects.

Still, the funds in the EPW committee’s new measure are authorizations, and it would be up to the appropriations committees to set the annual amounts the water programs would receive, to be turned into money for projects.

The Senate panel’s annual SRF levels are lower than those contained in recently introduced House measures, but they are well above 2021 appropriations for those programs.

In addition, the bill is silent about how to raise the revenue needed to support its additional funding. In the Senate, revenue matters are under the jurisdiction of the tax-writing Finance Committee, not Environment and Public Works.

Industry Reaction

Water industry organizations praised the Senate panel’s proposal and its funding levels. Adam Krantz, National Association of Clean Water Agencies chief executive officer, said in a statement that his group wants to make sure that clean water infrastructure will be put “front and center” in President Joe Biden’s upcoming infrastructure proposal.

“For too long,” Krantz said, “water utilities have been left without a strong federal partner and have had to pay for critical capital investments by raising rates on households already struggling with income security.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who introduced the bill, said in a statement, “From permanent brain damage from drinking water contaminated with lead, to overflowing sewage, Americans across the country are now experiencing what happens when our drinking water and wastewater systems age into a state of disrepair.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the committee’s top Republican, said, “This bill is not a Band-Aid—it provides essential assistance to our country’s aging water systems and the communities they serve.”

Balancing the Aid

Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the bill “increases our government’s commitment to providing safe and resilient water systems to cities and communities, both large and small.”

Carper, Capito, Duckworth and other senators involved in crafting the bill sought to balance the differing water needs of highly urbanized and rural regions and those in between.

For example, besides the SRF money, the proposal would provide $500 million over five years for water needs of small and disadvantaged communities.

It also would provide $125 million over five years to renew the existing Drinking Water Infrastructure Risk and Resiliency program for small communities. That program seeks to deal with threats of severe weather and other natural disasters as well as cybersecurity incursions.

For midsize and large drinking water systems, the legislation would establish a resilience and sustainability grant program, funded at $250 million over five years.

In addition, the measure has $250 million over five years for a new EPA competitive grant program to promote resilience of water infrastructure systems and networks in states with large numbers of underserved communities.

The proposal increases funding for EPA’s grant program to reduce lead in drinking water to $100 million a year for five years.

For clean water programs, the bill would reauthorize the current municipal grant program for sewer overflow and stormwater reuse projects. It also would create a 25% set-aside within that program for projects in rural or financially struggling communities.

Moreover, the proposal would launch a new clean water resilience and sustainability program, funded at $25 million annually for five years.

Continuing WIFIA

The legislation also reauthorizes for five years the existing and popular Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA, a program of low-interest loans, with funding set at the present level of $50 million per year.

Tommy Holmes, the American Water Works Association’s legislative director, said in comments emailed to ENR that both houses of Congress “appear to be on track to reauthorize the SRFs and WIFIA and then to provide robust funding for them.”

Holmes adds, “We have a ways to go, but with authorization for the drinking water SRF and for WIFIA ending in September, that is motivation to keep things moving.”