The Trump administration has declared war on the environment and the safety of our drinking water. His team put together an aggressive action plan for the EPA, stripping away public protections and critical resources.
According to a memo leaked on Monday, Trump’s team has proposed cutting $513 million from EPA’s "states and tribal assistance grants.” These grants support a range of projects to protect our air and water resources – from protecting wetlands and beaches to preventing radon-related lung cancer. It includes the Public Water Supervision Program that supports states every year to help enforce drinking water regulations. For example, Arkansas's Department of Health received a $947,000 grant for fiscal year 2016 and $180,000 for fiscal year 2017 so far. Ohio’s environmental agency has received nearly $500,000 for fiscal year 2017 so far from this one grant program alone.
The State and Tribal Assistance Grants also form the backbone of the State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs, the primary source of federal funding for our water and sewer systems. Every single state relies on funding from these programs to assist community water and sewer projects – from helping the small town of Edgerton, Wyo. remove bacteria from its water supply to helping St. Bernard Parish, La., replace its old, deteriorated water lines.
Trump’s cuts will be devastating for communities across the country, especially small, rural and disadvantaged communities. Small and rural water systems rely on federal assistance to keep their water safe. Their customer base is small, and their systems are spread out and costly, leaving rural water customers with a heavy financial burden.
In fact, on the campaign trail Trump promised to triple funding for these water funding programs. But we are in a new era, one ruled by “alternative facts.” In reality, Trump’s agenda aggressively attacks our fundamental resources and key values. The very safety of our drinking water is at risk.
Trump’s Wall Street Giveaway
While gutting these vital water funding programs, Trump’s team is also advancing a proposal to let Wall Street take over our public infrastructure. Trump’s policy advisors have outlined a scheme to give massive tax breaks to Wall Street firms that take over infrastructure projects. It would give Wall Street a tax credit of $0.82 for every $1 of equity invested into a project.
This privatization scam will benefit only Wall Street. Widespread privatization of water systems would lead to large rate hikes, loss of local control, loss of transparency and accountability, loss of jobs and deterioration of customer service quality. Water bills would skyrocket to allow Wall Street to profit, leading to unaffordable bills and more water shutoffs.
Privatization will not help Flint or other communities address their water problems. Private investors will not put money into replacing water lines in low-income cities. They would cherry-pick service areas to avoid cash-strapped neighborhoods where households can’t afford to pay the cost of privatized service.
And, despite claims to the contrary, the tax-credit scheme will cost taxpayers a lot of money. The plan would not pay for itself. Wall Street players would just shift their investments to infrastructure and not necessarily increase the amount of money invested in the economy overall. There would be no increased revenue from income taxes on investor profits.
Trump’s plans amount to a massive windfall for Wall Street, and combined with his proposed cuts, they endanger our public water systems.
A National Challenge
The water crisis in Flint was a stark reminder that our country urgently needs a major, direct federal investment in our community water and sewer systems.
According to the latest estimates from the EPA, our water and sewer systems need at least $697 billion over 20 years to help protect public health and the environment. Other studies have found that our water needs are even larger. The American Water Works Association estimates that our drinking water systems need at least $1.1 trillion over the next 25 years to extend and replace the water pipes that are reaching the end of their useful life.
Without renewed federal commitment, cities and towns are left to figure out how to provide safe water without pricing their residents out of service. This problem becomes especially complex in this period of widening income inequality and reliance on regressive water billing practices that disproportionately burden low-income and working families. The consequences are playing out in communities across the country, from Detroit to San Diego: widespread water shutoffs.
Water affordability is a growing national crisis. A new study out of Michigan State University found that water bills are already unaffordable for nearly 12 percent of households nationwide. If water rates continue to increase at their projected pace, bills will become unaffordable for nearly 36 percent of households nationwide in the next five years. Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama have the most communities at risk of unaffordable water bills.
A Vision Forward
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats released their own blueprint to rebuild our country’s infrastructure, calling for $110 billion to update our water and sewer systems. Their plan would expand grant funding and assistance through these critical water funding programs. They provide a promising vision for water investment and a stark challenge to Trump’s plans to gut water programs and give massive handouts to Wall Street to privatize our infrastructure.
Their blueprint recognizes that communities need real direct assistance and that privatization is the wrong way forward: “Our Blueprint will invest directly in communities because Democrats know that we can’t fix a problem of this magnitude simply by tolling more highways or privatizing water and sewer system that profit on ratepayers.”
Congress members should use this plan as a guide to aggressively defend federal funding for our public water and sewer systems from cuts under the Trump administration.
In the long-term, Congress must establish a dedicated, annual source of funding for local water and sewer systems. We must remove water funding from the chopping block of federal budget battles. That is the only way we can ensure safe, affordable water service for current and future generations.