Solving Climate and Water Together with Climate-Forward Water Infrastructure

Yesterday was a big day. Wrapping up Water Week*, the annual week in which the Water Environment Federation and other water associations join forces to talk with Congress, the U.S. Senate passed S.914, the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021. I’m not sure which is more encouraging, the passage of the Act or the overwhelming bipartisan vote to support it (89-2, opposed by Sen Cruz of Texas and Sen Lee of Utah). It was a huge accomplishment any way you look at it.

But the work is hardly done. As is explained in the Water Environment Federation’s press release, there are a number of related bills making their way through the U.S. House of Representatives, and later this summer the Senate and House will negotiate a final agreement. We expect that the agreed upon water infrastructure language will be incorporated into a larger infrastructure package by fall.

As water infrastructure bills continue to make their way through Congress, we citizens need to continue to beat the drum. Thankfully, after years of lobbying for recognition that water infrastructure was even a thing, we now get to move beyond the basics of “fund water infrastructure” to focus more strategically. We will never have enough money to do everything for everyone, so we need to be thoughtful in what we’re asking for.

Earlier this week I had a chance to speak to the launch of Action Day for Rivers and Clean Water, a citizen advocacy effort spearheaded by River Network and American Rivers smartly timed to land at the same time as Water Week. As you can see from my remarks pasted below, I asked that we use this investment opportunity to push beyond the standard water infrastructure that has served us reasonably well for the last forty years, and prioritize investments that solve water and climate challenges synergistically . We need to create water infrastructure that helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and is resilient to the floods and droughts that come with the parts of climate change that are already upon us.

I’ll save a more detailed rant for later, but today I did my part by contacting my congressional representative and two senators to thank them for their support of water infrastructure funding, and to ask them to build climate-tackling opportunities into their water investments. And I urge you to do the same. Find your senator’ contact information here, and your representative’s information here. And if you’d like some ideas about what to say to them, feel free to lift from my Action Day remarks below.

I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you to Sen Heinrich and Congresswoman Tlaib for your leadership on water, climate, and working class people who are the backbone of this country. And thank you of course to American Rivers and River Network for creating this opportunity, bringing together so many to speak on behalf of water.

I’m here today as the president of the Water Environment Federation, a professional association of roughly 35,000 people around the world working in water, particularly wastewater and stormwater. However, I am also one of you. I am a past executive director of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, past board chair for River Network, and a long-time partner of American Rivers. In fact, I was in the actual halls of congress lobbying for rivers roughly a dozen years ago, the last time RN and AR partnered for Action Day.

We know that water is important to people – it routinely polls as one of Americans’ top concerns.

COVID19 put a spotlight on that importance. Suddenly handwashing and cleaning took on a sacred role. Our communities realized that water workers were essential employees – If you thought a pandemic was bad, try going through it without being able to safely flush your toilet or wash your dishes. And this past year outdoor resources became our escape valve. From Turkey Creek in Mississippi to the pristine Boundary Waters of Minnesota, and everywhere in between, people turned to water for respite.

But just because people care deeply about water, and just because they need water, doesn’t mean that our elected leaders know it. We need to tell them. And we need to tell them often. Which is why you’re here.

This year’s Action Day for Rivers and Clean Water comes at an especially opportune time. Not only are American Rivers and River Network – America’s two most preeminent water-focused citizen groups  – joining forces, but there are others walking the virtual halls of Congress this week as well. Action Day for Rivers and Clean Water coincides with Water Week when 18 water-sector associations – from the Water Environment Federation, the organization I represent, to RCAP providing technical assistance to rural communities and tribes across the U.S. and 16 others – are also speaking to Congress. We may have slightly different asks, but we align on the most important parts of the message: Communities need help for water in all its forms. And we need that help to be equitable, ensuring that communities and populations who have been left out of conversations in years past are now top of mind as we design funding programs and policies.

It is also why WEF is asking that the federal funding boost to be in the form of grants or forgivable loans.  Communities need to make these water infrastructure investments, but asking lower-income ratepayers, to endure rate increases isn’t an option.  Even before the pandemic, lower income ratepayers were struggling to pay water bill rate increases.  Now there’s an estimated $8.7 billion in unpaid water bills due to the pandemic, including an estimated $1 billion in California alone. So asking ratepayers to pay more each month for a federally subsidized loans isn’t realistic or equitable. Any boost in federal water infrastructure funding needs to be through grants or forgivable loans, similar to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  That is the only way ALL communities will benefit from increased federal water infrastructure funding.

We also need our water dollars to be targeted toward climate resilience. We do not need to choose whether we’re going to invest in climate or in water. We absolutely can and should be investing in solutions that address both of these challenges simultaneously. Water treatment, if designed right, can run entirely on renewable energy and in fact can be a source for clean energy. Through solar energy and renewable biogas generation, paired with gains in efficiency, cities from Oakland CA to St Cloud MN are proving that wastewater facilities, or what we refer to as ‘resource recovery facilities’ can generate more energy than they need.

This is a perfect embodiment of “Build Back Better”. We need investment that goes beyond what we built in the past, instead leading us toward clean water, a healthy climate, AND an inclusive and equitable framework to ensure that our investments serve everyone. In fact, we cannot have one without the other two. We have the technical know-how, now we just need the dollars and citizens who will stand for nothing less.

As an aside, if you need any inspiration on the opportunities to reimagine how we “do” water, I strongly urge you to take an hour to watch Brave Blue World, available on Netflix.  The future is SO Exciting, but we have to act strategically.

So go out there and talk to your elected representatives and senators. And then get your family, friends and neighbors to do the same. This is the opportunity of a generation and we need everyone.

Thank you.

*Image at top of blog is the brilliant logo for Water Week.

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