Omnibus Creates New Water Assistance Program but Fails to Stop Shutoffs

While water resources bill passes without water privatization amendment, advocates call for national shutoff moratorium and passage of the WATER Act to fund safe affordable public water for all

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Clean Water

For immediate release

Washington, DC — Last night, Congress passed a large omnibus spending legislation that includes a new Covid relief package and the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a major biennial water resources bill. The omnibus provides $638 million to the Department of Health and Human Services to create a new low-income water assistance program to help households with unaffordable water bills and water arrears, but it fails to include a national water shutoff moratorium during the pandemic. 

While WRDA excluded all drinking water and wastewater provisions, water advocates note that the bill did not include some very troubling privatization provisions. Earlier this year, the private water industry had supported adding a controversial bill to promote water privatization onto the legislation. 

The bill — the Voluntary Water Partnership for Distressed Communities Act (S. 2596), which was introduced by Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D- IL) and Mike Braun (R-IN) — would incentivize the privatization of struggling water systems by waiving fines and penalties on communities that enter into asset sales or management contracts. In July 2020, nearly 300 organizations sent a letter opposing this privatization bill. This provision was excluded from the final bill that passed.

In response to these developments, Food & Water Watch Public Water for All Campaign Director Mary Grant issued the following statement: 

“We applaud all the frontline water advocates and Congressmembers who fought to help households with unaffordable water bills during this crisis and beyond. While the amount of low-income water assistance falls far short of the need, the legislation sets up a framework that can be improved to support income-based water affordability programs in the future. This new program offers immediate help for unaffordable water bills and water debts right now. It is not enough, but people are hurting and this will provide some relief. 

“We are very disappointed that the legislation removed the national shutoff moratorium that had passed the House earlier this year. Millions of people are at risk of losing utility services. To protect public health, we call on President-elect Biden to issue an executive order on day one to stop all water and critical utility shutoffs nationwide.

“Grassroots organizing once again defeated the private water industry’s ploy to change laws for their benefit. Communities across the country weighed in to say that the federal government should not be in the business of promoting corporate control of water. From high rates to deteriorating service, privatization has been a disaster nationally, particularly harming working families and communities of color. Control of water belongs in the hands of the public.

“While Congress made the right move by excluding this deceptive provision, it failed to provide real support for struggling water and sewer systems. Congress should pass the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act as part of an infrastructure stimulus in the new year to fully fund our aging water systems, support public control of water services, dedicate money to Indigenous water infrastructure, prioritize disadvantaged communities, support rural water wells and septic systems, help get lead and PFAS out of our drinking water and help us build back better. It is past time for Congress to restore its commitment to safe and clean public water for all.”