Washington DC Update—March 2021
March has been a historic month. Almost exactly a year after coronavirus was declared a pandemic, President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion relief package that closely mirrored his American Rescue Plan, which he announced on Inauguration day. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed in the Senate 50-49, and then in the House 220-211, sending it to President Biden’s desk. A key provision of the relief package is $500 million in one-time water rate assistance, which is on top of the $638 million in water bill debt relief that was included in last December’s Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021.
To allocate these funds, Congress created the temporary Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Emergency Assistance Program housed at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), but currently there is no mechanism for continued funding of the program. While this $1.1 billion is an important first step, there is still a long way to go in terms of addressing water affordability. In California alone, at least 1.6 million households have past-due water bills—totaling $1 billion in water debt across the state.
There was also some movement on that front this month. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) unanimously advanced the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act. This legislation not only reauthorizes both the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, but also includes many other great provisions on climate resiliency, small systems, disadvantaged communities, and water workforce. Among those, is the creation of a pilot program of low-income customer assistance. Unlike the temporary HHS program, this one would be based at EPA and include more targeted approaches to debt reduction.
The Alliance, in line with its federal policy blueprint released last month, coordinated a response across environmental justice groups, water utilities, and others in our network to include the low-income customer assistance pilot in the bill, as an early draft of the bill did not include the provision. The Alliance is proud to see this collaboration strengthen the legislation and advance this critical work on a unanimous, bipartisan basis. We look forward to continuing these efforts towards affordability with our partners and network.
Michael Regan also made history this month, becoming the first Black man to lead the EPA in the agency’s history. The Senate voted 66-34 to confirm Michael Regan as EPA Administrator. Regan previously served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. His home state Senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis—both Republicans—were vocal advocates for Regan’s confirmation. The EPW Committee also advanced (although along party lines) the nominations of Janet McCabe to serve as Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and of Brenda Mallory to serve as Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The EPA under President Biden’s administration is taking a starkly different track than his predecessor, with the agency now prioritizing addressing legacy contaminants and emerging contaminants. Earlier this month, the EPA delayed the implementation of the Trump-era Lead and Copper Rule until at least June 17. The rule in question gives utilities a longer timeline to replace lead service lines. According to Acting Assistant Administrator Fox, the EPA is delaying the rule so the agency can review the rule and “fully consult with stakeholders, including those that have been disproportionately impacted by lead in drinking water.”
At the end of last month, the EPA issued two actions to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water. One of the actions is to collect new data on PFAS in drinking water under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. The second is to regulate PFOA and PFOS (two substances in the PFAS class of chemicals) under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Alliance welcomes these new actions, and emphasizes that federal government must continue to take a holistic approach and make historic investments across federal agencies aimed at eliminating emerging and legacy contaminants in the water sector—especially in communities of color, rural and urban low-income communities, and tribal communities.