The 2020 Election and Water Infrastructure

Mae Stevens

What to expect next in Congress and the incoming administration on Water Infrastructure.

At A Glance

  • The 117th Congress will present the opportunity for much-needed increases in water infrastructure funding.
  • The incoming Administration will likely bring a renewed focus to the water sector.

Lay of the Land
Water infrastructure is often ignored as it is out of sight and out of mind for the public and many policymakers. The sector often takes a backseat in spending conversations and the 116th Congress was no different.
Water was largely left out of Covid-19 stimulus legislation, including the $2.2 Trillion CARES Act, despite the sector weathering significant losses of revenue and increased costs during the pandemic. Congress has also not yet passed a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in the 116th Congress, despite passing one every two years since 2014. With the presidency switching parties, the likelihood of a last-minute WRDA during the lame-duck period is low.
The 117th Congress presents significant opportunity for water infrastructure. We will likely see a legislative package responding to the Covid-19 crisis very early on, if not in the lame duck then certainly within the first 100 days. Once the virus is brought under control, we will also see a renewed focus on infrastructure investment as we are able to shift towards getting Americans back to work. Water infrastructure is incredibly bipartisan and there should be opportunity to move bills in this space even though there may be gridlock in many other policy areas.
Control of the Senate, considered a toss-up going into election night, is expected to remain with the GOP, although final results will come after runoffs for both Georgia Senate seats on January 5, 2021. Control of the House will remain with the Democrats.
There will be some, but not many, changes in leadership on the committees of jurisdiction for water infrastructure. The most significant change comes in the Senate, as Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) is slated to give up his post as top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee to become the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He is expected to be replaced by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).
Other changes come in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with both the full committee Ranking Member, Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR-2), and the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change Ranking Member, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL-15), set to retire. Walden is likely to be replaced by either Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX-26) or Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA-5) and Shimkus is likely to be replaced by either McMorris Rodgers or Rep. David Mckinley (R-WV-1), however it is important to note that the predictions above are likely but not set in stone – House committee leadership elections are scheduled for the week of November 30.
With a Biden White House, GOP-controlled Senate, and a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, here are some of the major considerations for next Congress:

  • An economic stimulus package will be an early opportunity to provide funding for water utilities.
  • There will be a focus on increased infrastructure spending, either as a part of covid-19 stimulus packages or as a large standalone package.
  • Funding for utilities could come in the form of low-income ratepayer assistance, as it did in the House-passed HEROES Act, direct payments to utilities, or a combination of the two. Both options could include a moratorium on disconnections for non-payment.
  • Boosts to water infrastructure investment are likely to come through increased funding via existing mechanisms including State Revolving Funds (SRFs) and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program.
  • Congressional Democrats want to tighten up EPA regulation of drinking water by amending the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), but it is unclear if they will be able to compromise with Senate GOP on this. There may be bipartisan agreement on PFAS regulation under SDWA, as that has been an concern for both Congress and President-elect Biden.

The Administration
President-elect Biden’s campaign has had a large focus on environmental justice and climate change. As a part of his EJ platform, Biden has pledged to fight for increases to water infrastructure funding, as well as an increased focus on safe drinking water for all Americans.
Some things to watch:
Key personnel decisions. Appointments at EPA, as well as whether Biden creates new senior-level positions for water policy, will indicate how big of a priority water will be under his Administration. It will also be interesting to see how the president-elect approaches the newly created water subcabinet, the interagency group headed by the EPA Administrator and Secretary of Interior formed by executive order in October.
Increased funding. The water sector needs stronger federal funding. In the short-run, utilities need direct relief to remain solvent due to pandemic-induced revenue losses. In the long-run, permanent increases to funding streams like SRFs and WIFIA, and the creation of additional dedicated funding mechanisms would go a long way in financing maintenance backlogs and system upgrades.
Water quality. Addressing lead and copper in drinking water, as well as the emerging challenge presented by PFAS and other ‘forever chemicals’ will be a focus.
Water equity.Equity was a major focus of candidate Biden’s platform and should be overlayed heavily in his Administration’s work on water.
Water innovation. America’s water infrastructure is aging and, in some instances, crumbling. Part of building back better is investing in emerging smart water technologies as we invest in large-scale infrastructure upgrades.
Workforce Development. The water workforce is significantly older and whiter than the communities it serves. Creating initiatives to develop the next generation of water infrastructure professionals will be a major challenge.

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