Access to safe water must be a national priority for the Biden Administration. Across the country, people are struggling without safe water to drink, wash their hands, flush their toilets, clean, bathe, cook and stay safe during the pandemic. Water and sewer bills have grown by 80 percent since 2010, according to a Guardian analysis of 12 major US cities, and in a typical year, an estimated 15 million people experience a water shutoff because of unaffordable water bills. This is no typical year. Right now, as Covid-19 devastates all regions of the country, less than half of people are protected from water shutoff under a state or local moratorium. This is dangerous and it could be deadly.
Day 1: Keep the Water On
On day 1 of his administration, President Biden must issue an executive order to direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to impose a nationwide utility shutoff moratorium with safe restoration to all homes disconnected for nonpayment for the full duration of the Covid-19 national emergency through 12 months following its end to avoid a tidal wave of shutoffs and reemergent public health crisis. The incoming CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, can take a strong stance to ensure this public health protection is in place to prevent the further spread of the virus and allow people to stay safe at home. No person should be forced to weather this pandemic without running water in their home. This is a matter of public health and safety.
First 100 Days: Water Relief for Communities
President Biden must make a bold commitment to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic with the urgency that is needed to address our communities’ basic access to safe water. This must be reflected in an immediate Covid relief bill and in his budget priorities:
- Champion a Covid relief bill that centers the needs of people and provides additional support for water access. Our communities need real, immediate aid, including support for state and local governments and public water providers. This relief bill should include Emergency Water Is a Human Right Act (introduced by Reps. Tlaib and Dingell and Sen. Merkley), which would codify a national water shutoff moratorium and provide $1.5 billion in relief for low-income households. The late-December spending bill provides $638 million to a new low-income water assistance program. We need to build out that initiative and provide federal government support of income-based water affordability programs and debt forgiveness for low-and moderate-income households and households experiencing Covid-related lost wages and economic hardships.
- Budget at least $35 billion for water infrastructure to State Revolving Fund programs, USDA rural system grants, grants for rural household water wells and septic systems, and the school infrastructure grant program. This is the level of commitment our water needs.
As a senator, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris called for a national moratorium on shutoffs, cosponsored the Emergency Water Is a Human Right Act, and championed this level of investment for water infrastructure in her Water Justice Act. The Biden Administration should follow her leadership and support these crucial measures to improve water access across the country.
First Term: Build Our Water Back Safer, Healthier and More Just
President Biden and Vice President Harris need to make sure that water is safe and available for everyone in the country. Millions of people have water contaminated with lead, PFAS forever chemicals and other toxic compounds. Water systems are aging, pipes are breaking and more than 2 trillion gallons of drinking water are lost to leaks every year. Wastewater systems are overwhelmed by climate change-fueled storms and spilling billions of gallons of raw sewage into waterways and our environment. More than 2 million people in the country lack indoor plumbing and running water in their home, and an estimated 30 percent of the Navajo Nation lacks access to running water in their homes. The pandemic has only exacerbated these existing problems. Meanwhile, water corporations see opportunity in our cities’ fiscal distress, seeking to privatize water and wastewater systems to grow their profits through increasing rates on households who already struggle to afford their utility bills.
That’s why the Biden Administration needs to champion a comprehensive infrastructure stimulus to create good jobs for working people, address climate change’s impacts on our waterworks, improve our crumbing systems, and ensure universal access to safe water and sanitation. Since peaking in 1977, federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77 percent in real terms.
The Biden Administration must restore the Federal government’s commitment to safe public water for all by doing the following:
Champion the passage of the WATER Act: The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act (introduced by Reps. Lawrence and Khanna and Sen. Sanders) is the most comprehensive approach to improving our nation’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.
- Trust Fund: The WATER Act would create a Water Trust Fund and provide $35 billion in dedicated annual funding for the State Revolving Fund programs, USDA’s rural water programs, household wells and septic systems, school water infrastructure and other grants to ensure that people have access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.
- Job Creation: The WATER Act would create up to 1 million jobs a year across the economy. These are good jobs that cannot be outsourced. It requires the use of U.S.-made iron and steel, applies prevailing wage law to all projects and encourages union labor. The bill would limit drinking water funding to publicly run water systems and small locally owned systems to ensure that all federal dollars go to the public benefit, not private profits.
- Water Justice: The WATER Act would dedicate at least half of funding to disadvantaged communities first to prioritize addressing environmental injustices in access to safe water, and it would mandate dedicated funding to Indigenous communities. It will also require the EPA to coordinate a study about water affordability, including water rates, shutoffs, and the effectiveness of SRF funding for promoting affordable and equitable service. In conducting the study, the EPA will also investigate any discriminatory practices of water and sewer service providers and any violations of civil rights and equal access to water and sewer services.
Get toxic contaminants out of our drinking water: The Biden Administration needs to direct the EPA to set strong regulations to remove contaminants from drinking water and stop water pollution in the first place:
- Direct the EPA to set enforceable standards to remove PFAS as a class of chemicals from drinking water, regulate PFAS under the Clean Water Act and hold PFAS polluters accountable by designating PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law. The EPA must also ban all PFAS-containing pesticides.
- Direct the EPA to strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), commit to remove all lead service lines going into homes and schools, and eliminate lead plumbing in public schools across the country.
Support water as a public trust resource: The Biden Administration must recognize that water is a basic human right and public resource that should be protected from commodification, market speculation and privatization:
- Direct the EPA Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center to coordinate efforts to promote public-sector solutions for water services and halt all activities facilitating water privatization.
- Champion tax code changes to restore tax advantages of advanced refunding of municipal bonds and protect the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds, while removing tax exemptions for private activity bonds issued to privately owned or operated water and wastewater projects.
- Roll back regulations that facilitate water privatization by revoking Executive Order 12803 from the Bush Sr. administration and directing the IRS to roll back Revenue Procedure 97-13.
- Stop bottled water extraction in national forests and bottled water sales in national parks. Direct the USDA to stop all bottled water extraction in national forests. Specifically it must reject the renewal of Nestlé’s permit to take water from the San Bernardino National Forest when it is up in July 2021. Direct the Department of Interior to stop the sale of bottled water in national parks.
Through these efforts, President Biden and Vice President Harris can restore the federal stewardship of our water infrastructure. We can build back our water systems, create good union jobs, and make our communities healthier, more climate ready and more just. With the profound devastation of the pandemic, and deepening damage of climate change, this is not the moment for half measures and milquetoast solutions. We cannot compromise on safe water. We need a bold vision to usher in a new era where we as a nation fully commit to ensure that every person has access to healthy, affordable, publicly controlled water.