COVID 4 Stimulus Bill Must Recognize: Water Is Life

None of us can wash our hands, bathe, or clean and disinfect our homes as recommended by CDC without safe running water. Yet despite living under stay-at-home orders, staggering numbers of Americans have had their water shut off due to unpaid (and often unaffordable) water bills.

Credit: Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Last updated May 11, 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put unprecedented stress on the U.S. public health infrastructure, our economy, and the American people. Water is one of the critical elements of our everyday lives that is badly at risk but has been largely ignored in the first three enacted Covid bills in Congress (though some drafts of the legislation did seek to tackle key water issues). None of us can wash our hands, bathe, or clean and disinfect our homes as recommended by CDC without safe running water. Yet despite living under stay-at-home orders, staggering numbers of Americans have had their water shut off due to unpaid (and often unaffordable) water bills. Millions more of us are at risk as we shelter in place at our homes, because we are served by water systems contaminated with lead, bacteria, or toxic chemicals and unable to comply with basic health guidelines.

Upcoming Covid response legislation should include provisions to protect public health; ensure protection of economically distressed people, communities, and water systems; and help provide jobs and economic stimulus for the flagging economy. Specifically, we recommend the following measures.

Addressing Immediate Water Needs

Many governors, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and California Governor Gavin Newsom, have issued executive orders requiring already disconnected homes to be safely reconnected to water and temporarily ending the practice of water shutoffs due to nonpayment in direct response to the public health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. These are hardly the only states to use water shutoffs to penalize homes with unpaid bills, and at least eight other states plus the District of Columbia have issued statewide water shutoff moratoria during the pandemic. But most states have not, and many of those that have taken up the issue have left major gaps in protections.

Estimates of the total number of people across the country whose water has been shut off in a given year range from hundreds of thousands to as many as several million. For example, in Detroit alone, water was shut off to 23,000 homes in 2019, and there were 141,000 total service cutoffs in recent years; in New Orleans there were over 9,000 homes whose water needed to be reconnected during the Covid-19 outbreak; in California NRDC's review of self-reported utility data for 2019 found that at least 350,000 Californians experienced their water being shut off at least once last year. Indeed, a California study by Pacific Institute showed that while most utilities had a 4 percent disconnection rate or less, more than a third had disconnection rates from 7 percent to as high as 30 percent. This could translate into millions of homes disconnected nationally.  

Water is a basic need. But residential water rates have increased at three times the rate of inflation over the last decade. Residents in Cleveland and Detroit are paying an average water and sewer bill of well more than $1,100 a year per family of four. Costs passed on to customers are predicted to rise, as utilities repair leaky pipes and failing infrastructure. As a result, many low-income households struggle to pay their water bills and are subject to shutoffs and liens on their homes, which can lead to loss of access to housing, serious adverse health consequences, and even loss of custody of children. Well before Covid-19, public health data suggested that widespread shutoffs in Detroit are linked to the spread of infectious disease. And now, even in the face of a pandemic, too many people still remain without water nationwide.

To address the water shutoff and affordability issues, the next Covid legislation should:

  • Institute a national moratorium on shutoffs of water, electricity, and gas for residential buildings and provide $100 million to water utilities to compensate for reconnecting all residential water services nationwide.
    • Extend the moratorium on shutoffs to at least 120 days after the crisis to enable people to regain financial footing and prohibit draconian collection practices such as liens. Require lenient payback periods. (Such provisions were included in section 103 of the House COVID3 legislation.)
    • Require safe reconnections for water and provision of safe municipal watering stations where immediate safe reconnection is not possible. Safe reconnections are critical because water that has remained stagnant after a shutoff loses chlorine disinfectant and can allow high levels of bacteria and pathogens to grow in pipes and can also have a buildup of lead and structural problems may occur due to corrosion. Crews and plumbers may not be immediately available so mobile safe municipal water stations, such as water buffalos, should be temporarily installed.
  • Make water and sewer bills affordable for low-income and rural Americans through a significant increase in the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) and Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) and at least 20 percent set aside for disadvantaged and small communities, as well as a substantial increase in USDA Rural Utilities Service’s funding for water and wastewater for small disadvantaged communities.
  • Support low-income affordability programs with at least $4 billion in funding (building on the $1.5 billion proposed in the House COVID3 bill) and incentives for utilities to adopt more equitable rate structures.
  • Provide incentives for water utilities to improve affordability and water quality through partnerships, consolidation, or regionalization assistance for smaller utilities, while ensuring that they comply with health protection requirements.
  • Fund technical assistance programs to support low-income residential energy and water efficiency program design, community energy, and water benchmarking.
  • Provide assistance to drinking water and wastewater utilities to compensate for lost revenues due to the Covid economic downturn, while ensuring these utilities are accountable for maintaining service to everyone.

Addressing Additional Health Threats from Water During and After Shelter-at-Home Orders

As of this writing, about 300 million Americans are under stay-at-home orders, and most will for many years hence continue to use our tap water at home. Congress must ensure that we invest in protecting our population from health-threatening contamination. We know for example that there are 6 million to 10 million homes with lead service lines that are causing widespread contamination of drinking water with lead and need to be replaced, that millions more of us across the country have toxic forever chemicals called PFAS in our tap water, and that tens of millions of others have contaminants ranging from arsenic to dangerous bacteria in their tap water.

Investing in fixing these risks will also significantly contribute to rebuilding our economy by creating jobs and generating revenue. Water industry experts estimate that there is a funding gap of about $82 billion per year in water infrastructure and that plugging that gap would create $240 billion in annual economic activity and 1.3 million jobs per year for 10 years. To address these risks and help stimulate our economy, Congress should:

Increase funding for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) by at least $10 billion a year and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) by at least $10 billion a year for at least the next five years and permanently extend Buy America provisions for both programs. As part of this legislation:

  • States should be required to use 20 percent of their SRF capitalization grants to help small and disadvantaged communities by providing grants, negative interest loans, and forgiveness of principal.
  • Funding should be prioritized in the form of grants, rather than loans, for water infrastructure projects that help disadvantaged communities, promote climate resilience, and focus on priority drinking water threats.
  • Ensure that utilities in rural, small, tribal, and economically disadvantaged communities can actually access available infrastructure funding. Ensure that states actively recruit these communities to apply. Provide technical support for these communities to complete the engineering and other legwork necessary to submit an application.
  • PFAS contamination should be directly addressed with specific funding to help the millions of Americans whose water is toxic due to these forever chemicals.
  • Promote climate resilience and green/natural infrastructure by prioritizing these projects when distributing CWSRF funds.
  • Lead contamination should be aggressively addressed by funding full lead service line replacements while prohibiting partial lead service line replacement and the charging of individual homeowners for replacement. This is estimated to cost about $45 billion, or about $4.5 billion per year over 10 years, which should be funded under the DWSRF.
  • Get the lead out of schools’ water with $1 billion to help schools replace lead-bearing water fountains and faucets with water hydration stations with certified filters. 
  • Provide full funding for the Sewer Overflow Control grants program, at $225 million a year.
  • Increase funding for water infrastructure in rural areas: $1.75 billion, including $750 million in grants, for the USDA Rural Utilities Service's water and wastewater programs. This program funds construction and improvements for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems for rural households and businesses and Tribes, and will both provide the clean water these communities need while also spurring economic activity and creating jobs.
  • Establish an EPA program providing grants for construction, repair, and replacement of individual household decentralized wastewater systems, and for connecting communities without sewer systems to existing sewer systems. This has great potential for job creation and would benefit frontline communities and communities that have been left behind everywhere from urban Florida to rural Alabama to coastal Oregon, all of whom deal with inadequate sewer and sanitation infrastructure in low-income communities.

Without the important immediately needed measures, the nation will face enormous challenges in ensuring that we can “flatten the curve” during the Covid-19 crisis. Moreover, the longer-term investments suggested above for our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure will bear long-term benefits including a healthier population and environment, a stronger economy, and more jobs.

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