Water Infrastructure with Mae Stevens

Andrew Deerin

“I really think that the problem with all these issues, whether it’s lead or fatbergs or emerging pollutants or anything else, is that there’s not enough money in the system going towards maintaining our water infrastructure.”

SIGNALCAST: Welcome to SignalCast, the podcast from Signal Group. Signal’s a bipartisan communication and advocacy firm located in Washington, DC. As always, I’m your host Andrew Deerin, creative director at Signal, and today we’re gonna start off with a little pop quiz. Okay, are you ready? What do you get when you combine two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom? That’s right, you get water. Good job, class.

So today we’re joined by Signal’s own Mae Stevens. Mae has over fourteen years of experience working in the environmental and public policy arenas. Most recently she served as environmental policy advisor to Senator Ben Cardin. Welcome to the SignalCast studios, Mae.

MAE STEVENS: Thanks, Andrew. It’s great to be here.

SC: Awesome. So you were the go-to staffer in the Senate on water infrastructure for the last several years. What do you think is gonna happen in 2019 and 2020 in this space? Do you think there’s any opportunity to get something done, or do you think the presidential election is going to suck all the air out of the room?

STEVENS: Well, I think that the presidential election is something to consider. Obviously that is gonna be a big part of what we do for the next two years is think about the presidential election, but the good news is that water infrastructure is a really … it’s not even bipartisan. It’s just non-partisan. For the last several congresses, we’ve had really really great vote counts on all of the water infrastructure bills that we’ve done. We usually do them every two years.

The last bill that passed, it passed 99 to 1 in the Senate and unanimously in the House. We almost never get that kind of vote count unless you’re naming a post office, and these bills … in fact, the last bill doubled the amount of money we spent on drinking water infrastructure in the country. So clearly that was a significant bill, and the fact that it got such a high vote count means that we really can get it done. It just depends on when.

SC: What do you think are some of the most urgent issues with regards to water? Is it lead which has obviously gotten a ton of press in the last couple years, flushable wipes, or the fatbergs floating around the sewers of London and New York. What are the big issues here?

STEVENS: So as much as I love talking about fatbergs because I think they’re so fun, I really think that the problem with all these issues, whether it’s lead or fatbergs or emerging pollutants or anything else, is that there’s not enough money in the system going towards maintaining our water infrastructure. We could get lead pipes out of the ground. We could deal with fatbergs. We could deal with all of these things if we just had more money to deal with it.

And so one of the big issues, or one of the big reasons why these utilities don’t have enough money is because some people can’t afford their water bills. Water rates are increasing really really quickly. How quickly? Baltimore for example has doubled their water bills in the last nine years. So that’s really a problem for somebody who’s on a fixed income, who’s a retiree. They really just can’t afford to pay twice as much as what they paid just nine years ago.

SC: Is there a reason why the prices are going up? Are the utilities putting infrastructure in place, or are they just raising prices?

STEVENS: No, so that’s an excellent question. So the reason that they are raising these rates are because they have to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. And those two bills are really important. They’re what makes sure that your drinking water is safe and that the sewage that is coming from your house doesn’t go directly into a river.

SC: Okay.

STEVENS: So those are really really important, and we want to make sure they’re able to comply with those laws. So that’s why we need to do more for the utilities. I mean sort of the other option for that is not have them comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, but I don’t think anybody on the planet wants that. So we just need to make sure they’re able to comply. And that’s where raising the rates come in.

One of the very last things I did when I left the Hill was I wrote a bill for Senator Cardin that would help utilities help people pay for their water bills.

SC: Tell us a little bit about that bill and why you and Senator Cardin wrote it.

STEVENS: The bill that I wrote for Senator Cardin is very similar to a program in the energy space called LIHEAP. So we call this one LIHEAP for Water. Basically, what it is, it’s money that goes to utilities and that money has to be used by utilities to sort of cancel people’s debts. If they can’t pay bills or just help them pay the bill, they will give them a percentage discount on the bill every month or just forgive their bill altogether if the people really just can’t pay.

And that’s a good way to sort of supplement the utilities without putting the burden on the rate payers or the citizens of the city. The bill gives a ton of flexibility to utilities all across the country to do it however works for them the best. So even if it’s helping people buy more water efficient appliances, which means they will have lower water bills in the future, that’s another thing that they can do with this money. So it doesn’t have to be just forgiving people’s bills, but it can actually help people save water down the road. And that’s really important out West. In the Eastern US, we don’t have the problems of scarcity as much. Although, there’s never a problem with not wasting water, but it’s just a way to give flexibility to everyone.

It’s designed for utilities all across the country and also utilities that are the biggest utilities all the way down to the very smallest utilities. So we make sure there’s geographic and population diversity with the bill.

SC: Well this conversation’s gotten me thirsty. That’ll do it for today’s show. My thanks to Mae Stevens for making time to sit down with us here at SignalCast. As the saying goes, if you like water you already like 73% of me. And I hope you like this episode of SignalCast even more.

To get in touch, check us out on the web at signaldc.com. For our entire production staff, I’m Andrew Deerin. We’ll see you next time.

Can somebody get me a glass of water, please?