Support is growing for a solution to our country’s escalating water affordability crisis. The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act (WATER Act), which would repair our water infrastructure and protect people from unaffordable water bills, has the sponsorship of a record 76 U.S. representatives and was introduced to the Senate this year for the first time. The legislation would devote nearly $35 billion a year in federal funding to repair our drinking water and sewage systems, clean up water pollution, promote affordable water and create almost a million jobs.
These programs are sorely needed. Water rates are rising rapidly all over the country, leaving consumers increasingly unable to afford water for drinking and bathing. From 2008 to 2014, water and sewer rates increased by about 40%. In 2016, the average water utility shut off 5 percent of households for nonpayment and a shocking 15 million Americans experienced a water shutoff. A 2017 study by a Michigan State University professor found that if water rates continue to rise as projected, about 36% of households could be unable to pay their water bills by this year, 2019.
Rates are increasing because much of our water infrastructure has aged and needs to be replaced. Without a renewed federal investment, cities and water utilities need to raise money locally, and ratepayers are paying the price.
Decaying water infrastructure hurts water quality, leaving communities like Martin County, Kentucky facing high water rates for contaminated water. The disastrous Flint Water Crisis exemplifies the dangers of our underfunded infrastructure (coupled with the erosion of democratic control over our water), yet lead water pipes are common in cities across the country.
We need a solution that matches the scale of our compounded water crisis, which is why we’re campaigning for the WATER Act.
What the WATER Act Would Do
The WATER Act would substantially increase federal investment in our water infrastructure through the creation of the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability Trust Fund. This fund would be financed to the tune of $34.85 billion annually by raising the corporate income tax rate from 21% to 24.5%, a small rollback of the Trump tax cuts. These funds would be available without appropriation and interference from lawmakers.
45% of the Trust Fund (almost $15.7 billion) is dedicated to a Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) program. This fund provides money to repair and upgrade stormwater and sewer systems to ensure wastewater does not pollute our waterways. Funds can explicitly be used to reverse water privatization by allowing municipalities and authorities to purchase privately owned systems or cancel contracts with private operators. Distributed by the states, disadvantaged communities must receive no less than 50% of funds, guaranteeing adequate financing to communities with the least ability to pay.
"Running water is still not universally available."
43.5% of the Trust Fund is dedicated to a Drinking Water SRF to provide funding for public drinking water infrastructure. Similar to the Clean Water SRF, 50% of funds are dedicated to disadvantaged communities and money can be used to purchase privately owned systems. 3% of funds are additionally devoted to Indigenous nations to ensure reservations have clean water to drink where running water is still not universally available.
Other provisions of the Drinking Water SRF ensure water affordability and fight contamination risk. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to promote universal access to water and sewer services, and protect people from harmful water shutoffs. As part of this mandate, the agency will collect data and regularly report to Congress on water affordability, rate increases, water shutoffs, and discrimination. Funds can be used to ameliorate toxic PFAS pollution, which originates from industrial contamination and firefighting foams used on U.S. military bases. Where water systems and wells are contaminated by these “forever chemicals,” treatment systems will be updated or alternative water sources will be found.
3% of the Trust Fund would go to a grant program for drinking water in public schools. This would increase funding going to schools to ensure safe drinking water from $5 million to $1 billion per year. This money would remove lead from drinking water in schools and support monitoring/reporting of lead levels in school drinking water.
A new grant program for residential onsite sewage disposal systems such as septic tanks would receive 2.5% ($871 million) of the Trust Fund allocation. Homeowners would be able to apply to the USDA to participate in a new grant program to help households install, repair, replace and upgrade septic tanks and drainage fields. While no federal funding is currently available for upgrades to septic tanks, this program would tackle rural wastewater pollution. This is an urgent need in communities such as Lowndes County, Alabama, where basic waste disposal infrastructure is often absent and hookworm can be found. 73% of county residents in a recent survey reported exposure to raw sewage as a result of dilapidated septic systems that residents cannot afford to replace.
2.5% would go to nonpoint source pollution management programs, which seek to control and remove pollutants that do not come from an identifiable site or company, such as stormwater or agricultural runoff. States could apply for grants from the EPA to monitor pollution, educate about the problem, restore polluted waterways, implement green infrastructure to control stormwater runoff, and more.
An additional 1.5% of funding would go to pollution control programs. In contrast to nonpoint source management, these seek to reduce pollution at the source. State governments, colleges and universities, and tribes could apply for funds to monitor and assess water quality, develop water quality standards, receive technical assistance, and ensure compliance and enforcement of pollution control laws.
Smaller grant programs round out the last 2% of the WATER Act trust fund. 1% ($348.5 million) would go to upgrades and installations of drinking water wells for rural households, ensuring that those without connection to water systems would still receive support in obtaining safe drinking water. Small rural and tribal reservation systems would specifically receive 0.5% each for wastewater systems and technical assistance with drinking water systems.
What is the Alternative to the WATER Act?
At first glance, it seems paradoxical that while the quality of our water services are in decline, water rates are rising rapidly and millions of Americans are having their service shut off. Flint, Michigan, for example, has some of the highest water rates in the country. What connects these intersecting water crises is that federal investment in water infrastructure has been cut back by 74% in real dollars since 1977.
Food & Water Watch Water-For-All Campaigner Mary Grant emphasizes three major consequences of continued disinvestment:
“First, we will see water bills continue to increase to levels that many people cannot afford to pay. This is especially true in many big cities, which will experience a deepening water affordability crisis. Second, communities, particularly rural ones, without the ability to raise revenue will have contaminated, unsafe water...The third threat is that in an absence of federal funding, we’re going to see ongoing privatization efforts across the country. Corporations are going to try to take control of water systems by exploiting the infrastructure crisis.”
Water is a fundamental human right, and the WATER Act is the only proposal on the table with significant support that can ensure every American has access to clean, affordable water. The WATER Act will create nearly a million jobs funded by corporate taxes, making our country fundamentally more just and democratic. We hope you will join the fight to get us there!