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"The WATER Act is introduced against the background of COVID-19-related crises in the U.S. that has further worsened the inequities in water access, drawing sharper attention to environmental justice concerns," the author writes. (Photo: Shenhung Lin/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Calls for the Biden Administration to Prioritize Our Water Infrastructure

Newly introduced legislation would help counteract decades of underinvestment in water infrastructure that's been plaguing America’s drinking water systems.

Last week, IATP joined Food & Water Action and nearly 550 other national and regional organizations including Action Center on Race & The Economy, Center for Biological Diversity and Corporate Accountability in support of the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act. This legislation was introduced in the House and the Senate last week by Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna and Sen. Bernie Sanders and is backed by 71 other Democratic lawmakers.

Four years ago, this month, we wrote that clean water was one of the first casualties of Trump administration’s partisan attacks to roll back regulations. The use of the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Stream Protection Rule, which was established to protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests and was passed after extensive public consultation, was indicative of the administration’s callous approach to protecting the nation’s communities and its environment.

As it is, decades of underinvestment in water infrastructure have been plaguing America’s drinking water systems. The Guardian reported last week that federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77% in real terms since its peak in 1977. This has left local utilities scrambling to raise funds to pay for infrastructure upgrades, comply with safety standards for toxic contaminants such as Per-and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS), lead and algae blooms, and adapt to extreme weather conditions like drought and floods linked to global heating.

So, it is indeed urgent and necessary that building America’s public water infrastructure becomes a priority for the Biden administration. The WATER Act of 2021, as Sen. Sanders puts it, “is the most comprehensive approach to improving our water systems and helping ensure that every person has access to safe and clean water in the United States.”

The WATER Act of 2021 “establishes increased yearly mandatory spending”, up to $34.85 billion per year for drinking water and clean water infrastructure, creating up to one million jobs throughout the economy. It not only responds to water accessibility and affordability, but also details a path for upgrading public water systems to remove highly toxic and hazardous chemicals like lead and PFAS from drinking water while also maintaining public control over these systems.

The WATER Act is introduced against the background of COVID-19-related crises in the U.S. that has further worsened the inequities in water access, drawing sharper attention to environmental justice concerns. 

Most importantly, these programs include a specific focus on providing support for rural and small municipalities, Indigenous communities, and low-income Black and brown communities who face disproportionate water issues. The WATER Act of 2021 will help the United States move towards making the internationally recognized right to water a reality in this country and simultaneously help meet targets linked to several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (and indicators) especially those on water and sanitation.

© 2021 Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Shiney Varghese

Shiney Varghese is Senior Policy Analyst with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She leads IATP's work on global water policy, focusing on the water crisis, its impact on water and food security, and possible local solutions that emphasize equity, environmental justice and sustainability. Before moving to United States in 1998, she worked in India on social and environmental issues for more than a decade with indigenous groups, civil society organizations and international groups such as Oxfam.

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