Representatives Fight Water Crises With New Legislation

By Dharna Noor

Jasmine Carlton’s five-year-old daughter Jeniah is among the hundreds of people exposed to lead each year in Baltimore.

“She fights, she yells with no prior reason. She wants her way. She used to bang her head on the wall,” Carlton told the Real News last year.

Jeniah was poisoned by the paint in her home, but for over a decade, concerns about high levels of lead have stopped officials from allowing city public school students to drink from fountains in their schools. Whether from water or paint, lead poisoning in children can lead to headaches, stomach pain, and behavioral issues – and can affect a child’s developing brain in ways that can cause permanent damage.

Some 18 million Americans live in municipalities that have failed to treat water for lead contamination or report that contamination to residents, the best known of which is Flint, Michigan.

Reps. Ro Khanna from California and Keith Ellison from Minnesota introduced legislation this week that aims to prevent disasters like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which resulted in thousands of families living without potable water for years.

“Today marks the four year anniversary of the crisis in Flint, Michigan, but the reality is water infrastructure around the country has been neglected for decades,” said Ellison in a statement. “Low-income communities and communities of color can’t be expected to thrive when they lack basic necessities like water. We are one of the richest nations in the world: it is time to guarantee clean water as a right for all.”

The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act would provide $35 billion for municipalities to improve drinking water and wastewater services. The funds would be distributed through existing low-interest federally administered funds, called State Revolving Funds (SRFs).

“It would also provide grants to replace lead service lines going into homes, remove lead pipes and plumbing in schools, construct and improve household drinking water wells, and upgrade home septic systems,” Food and Water Watch said in a statement.

The act would also incentivize public ownership of large water systems. “The WATER Act brings the drinking water SRF funds into conformity with the Clean water ARFs by requiring public ownership—unless the system serves fewer then [sic] 10,000 customers and is not owned by a person that owns any other drinking water system,” said Mitch Jones, Senior Policy Advocate at Food and Water Watch. “We drafted that provision because of our opposition to privatized water, but with an eye on the fact that many small communities have always had a small, local, ‘mom & pop’ owned water system and we didn’t want to cut them out of receiving funds.”

Rep. John Conyers introduced versions of the WATER bill in 2016 and 2017.

“The only change to this year’s bill is the funding mechanism: it is now funded by rolling back a small portion of the Trump administration’s corporate tax cuts,” Mary Grant, Food and Water Watch’s Public Water for All Campaign Director, wrote in an email. “The previous bills were funded by a tax on overseas corporate profits (this is no longer possible because of Trump’s tax changes).”

“There’s a major shortfall in money required for infrastructural improvements,” said Andrew Grinberg, National Campaigns Special Projects Manager for Clean Water Action, on the phone. “The existing primary federal source for funding for drinking water systems is the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. That’s given out to states in the form of loans that then go to drinking water systems, and that’s a little over a billion dollars a year. This act would be $35 billion dollars, so clearly, it’s many orders of magnitude larger,” he continued.

Ellison and Khanna were compelled to introduce The WATER Act in Congress because of the crisis in Flint, but the act would have implications for municipalities across the nation—including Baltimore.

Under a consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency, Baltimore must repair its sewage system—which is over a century old—and stop wastewater from leaking into the Inner Harbor and residents’ basements. The city estimates that these repairs will cost $2 billion.

“Based on the current allotment formula and the funding levels from the WATER Act, Maryland would receive about $627 million a year to distribute to publicly-owned water and sewer systems. In comparison, this year Maryland received $47 million from the federal government for the SRFs,” wrote Grant.

Rianna Eckel, the Maryland Organizer for Food and Water Watch is  not sure the funds will be enough to fix the problems with local sewage and water systems, but she says if it passes, the act would at the least take some of the burden off of Baltimore residents.

“The goal is really to obtain some amount of federal funding so that the burden of upgrading infrastructure is not on the backs of ratepayers,” Eckel said on the phone. “Infrastructure will need to be upgraded again and again especially in cities on the East Coast, because as the infrastructure ages, there’s going to be more and more burst pipes and backups.”

She says that many cities, including Baltimore, haven’t done enough preventative maintenance. “We had a ton of water main breaks in January and we’re fixing them now, once the water mains have already broken,” she said. “This act gives cities the ability to not just do reactive work, but proactive work.”

But it’s not just cities that the bill would impact.

“Some of these funds would be available for private wells in rural areas,” said Clean Water Action’s Grinberg. “The federal Safe Drinking Water Act only applies to public water, so there are currently no protections for the quality of that water.” The bill includes a new grant program for the upkeep and repair of septic tanks.

“Septic systems remain a large source of water pollution, and in many rural areas the expense of upkeep for septics has led to failures that can pollute local drinking water,” said Food and Water Watch’s Jones. “We were approached about that issue when we were first drafting the bill by people in North Carolina and Alabama. That’s why included that provision. We also wanted to help people on well water be able to have their systems intact and so increased funding for the existing program.”

“It’s often low-income folks who live in those communities. I’m from California and in Central Valley, smaller, low-income, mostly Latino communities are dealing with contaminated private well water because there are no federal regulations on them,” Grinsberg continued.

Over 15 million US households rely on private wells for drinking water, and many are much closer to home than California. Faculty at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future wrote to the health departments of both Wicomico County and Somerset County to draw awareness to the negative impacts of chicken farms on public health. These health risks are due in part to the farms’ contamination of well water.

Some 60,000 Wicomico County residents and 15,000 Somerset County residents rely on private wells for drinking water. “A University of Maryland Eastern Shore pilot study found that 67% of private wells—which residents are responsible for testing and maintaining—failed to meet drinking water standards for total coliform, 36% tested positive for E. coli, and 31% failed the standards for total dissolved solids and pH,” the Center for a Livable Future letters read.

Due to the bill’s funding model, some fear that no money would actually reach the localities it’s supposed to serve. Tommy Holmes, Legislative Director of the American Water Works Association, says that trust funds are not the best way to help localities address water infrastructure needs.

“There are more than 400 federal trust funds, and in all but one, Congress has to specifically release those funds each year for them to be used,” he wrote in an email. “Invariably, a very large portion of the funds collected are not released, but stay in the federal treasury to help offset the budget deficit. That one fund that is the exception is the highway trust fund, and its problems with underfunding have also been in the news in recent years. In addition, after that exception was created for the highway trust fund, members of Congress vowed never again to give up such control of a trust fund.”

Holmes also says that the bill’s the source of capitalization is “vague.”

“When [a water trust fund] was first proposed more than a decade ago, it featured a tax on products using water. Various industries carved out exemptions to the point where the source of funding eventually became a voluntary contribution by companies,” he said.

“We would rather continue to work with Congress to bolster funding for the drinking water and wastewater state revolving loan fund programs, USDA’s rural utilities assistance programs and for the more recent Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program,” he said. “In fact, in the 2018 omnibus budget bill enacted in March, the SRFs and WIFIA got a tremendous boost in spending from Congress. We hope to continue that trend.”

Advocates also say that under the Republican-controlled Congress and Trump administration, the chances for the bill passing are unlikely at best.

“For the time being, unfortunately, that means the responsibility still falls on local governments to act…so things like [Baltimore City Council President] Jack Young’s promise to introduce a city income-based water affordability ordinance are still the way forward,” said Eckel.

“But that doesn’t mean we should stop organizing around [the act] or that we don’t need to build awareness,” she continued. “If we waited until it’s politically feasible to introduce legislation, we’d be waiting forever.”

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.