What the Trump Infrastructure Plan Means for Clean Water

The president's infrastructure plan falls far short of the investment needed, and it proposes to eviscerate the protections that keep our water clean and safe.

After months of build-up, the Trump administration has finally released its much-hyped infrastructure plan. It wasn’t worth the wait.

Our nation’s infrastructure needs investment—badly. While much of the political rhetoric on infrastructure centers around bridges and roads, our water and wastewater systems need attention too. These are the facilities that bring clean water to our homes and carry away runoff and waste. They’re essential to the functioning of our communities, and they affect our public health. But a long-term lack of funding has left them in a state of disrepair.

At the same time, our nation’s water resources—including the water we drink—are threatened by development. Highways, dams, pipelines, and other large-scale projects can lead to dangerous pollution and irreversible damage to our waterways when they aren’t planned carefully.

The administration could have put forward an infrastructure plan that addressed both of these problems: one that provided more funding for water infrastructure, while maintaining safeguards to protect rivers, streams, and wetlands.

But it didn’t. It gave us a plan that falls far short of the investment needed. And it proposes to eviscerate the protections that keep our water clean and safe.

This blog post is the first in a three-part series analyzing what the president’s infrastructure plan means for clean water in America. This post provides an overview of the plan’s failures to deliver and protect clean water. Parts two and three will delve into greater detail on the plan’s proposed financial investments and its clean water rollbacks, respectively.

What a good plan would look like: infrastructure principles for clean water

Long before the proposal was announced, advocates knew what the plan needed to contain in order to be effective. Almost a year ago, my colleagues at NRDC described key principles for infrastructure investment. And nine months ago, I blogged about our specific priorities in the water infrastructure space.

The needs are clear. And they are urgent.

First, our water infrastructure needs a significant financial investment.

Much of our water infrastructure is crumbling. In many parts of the country, pipes and treatment facilities were built over a century ago, and today they’re in desperate need of repair. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our nation’s drinking water infrastructure a “D” grade—and wastewater infrastructure a “D+”—in its 2017 infrastructure report card.

Because our water infrastructure is in such bad shape, the EPA has identified more than $660 billion that must be invested over the next 20 years just to meet current environmental protection and public health needs ($271 billion for sewage systems and stormwater, and $384 billion for drinking water). This figure doesn’t even include the additional improvements needed to make our water infrastructure resilient to the impacts of climate change—which could add another $448 to $944 billion to our infrastructure needs through the middle of the century.

We can tackle this problem by increasing existing sources of funding and financing, like the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, as well as seeking out new and innovative sources of water infrastructure funding.

Fortunately, water infrastructure investments are good for the economy: the Economic Policy Institute found that spending $188.4 billion on water infrastructure over a five-year period would yield $265 billion in economic activity and create 1.9 million jobs.

Second, our investment should prioritize resilient, nature-based solutions.

Not all water infrastructure investments are equally beneficial to our communities. Nature-based solutions offer a wide range of social, economic, and environmental advantages that conventional methods don’t provide.

What are nature-based solutions? They protect, restore, and replicate natural systems. Nature-based solutions include choosing to plant trees and restore wetlands rather than building a costly new water treatment plant. They can mean prioritizing water efficiency and conservation over building dams, or restoring floodplains instead of building levees. As proven in communities around the country, these approaches can save money, grow the economy, and improve lives.

Nature-based solutions can be implemented on their own or integrated with traditional infrastructure. But where we have the opportunity, our infrastructure investments should prioritize these approaches before resorting to conventional methods.

Third, infrastructure policy must ensure that clean water is affordable to everyone.

Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by contaminated water that results from outdated, inadequate, or failing infrastructure. That isn’t fair. We don’t want a two-tiered system in America where the wealthy get water that’s clean and safe for their families, while the less well-to-do get second-class water systems that pose risks to their health and environment.

Federal water infrastructure funding can address this problem by directing assistance to the communities that need it most—like those facing large gaps between their infrastructure needs and their ability to raise or repay funds from local sources. At the same time, we should promote affordability at the local level by encouraging states and water utilities to adopt low-income customer assistance programs, equitable rate structures, and strategies that reduce system-wide costs borne by all customers.

Fourth, we must not sacrifice our bedrock environmental protections in the name of infrastructure “streamlining.”

While the poor state of our infrastructure demands near-term action, we should never rush into projects without evaluating their long-term impacts. Laws such as the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act enable us to look before we leap. They demand that we pause, reflect, and ensure that our infrastructure projects will provide the best and most environmentally sustainable solutions to our needs. We must not weaken or forego these protections in our haste to move projects forward.

Advocates of so-called regulatory “streamlining” claim that environmental reviews are the cause of unnecessary project delays. But study after study has proven that requirements to evaluate the environmental and community impacts of infrastructure projects are not a major cause of delays.

We don’t have to choose between new infrastructure improvements and a safe environment. According to a new national poll, 94 percent of Americans, including 92 percent of Trump voters, say the country can build infrastructure while keeping environmental protections in place.

The Trump plan fails to deliver on any of these principles

The administration’s proposal doesn’t satisfy a single one of these four criteria. What the proposal gives us instead is a meager pot of money attached to rollbacks of our environmental safeguards.

Under this plan, local governments and private interests will be forced to foot the bill for infrastructure improvements. Where they’re unable or unwilling to step up, our communities won’t get the infrastructure improvements we need, leaving our waterways polluted and our water systems outdated and crumbling. At the same time, we’ll have a harder time keeping our lakes, bays, and creeks safe from pipelines and other massive development projects.

Not only does the plan fail to prioritize nature-based solutions, but it offers no prioritization system at all to target the most beneficial projects. And it does nothing to ensure that our investments are affordable for the most vulnerable communities and individuals.

Tomorrow, Part 2 of this blog series will examine the money side of the equation: how much the plan actually proposes to invest in water infrastructure.

On Thursday, Part 3 will take a look at the plan’s proposals to undermine critical safeguards designed to protect our waterways from destructive projects.

Stay tuned!