At the start of the new year, all eyes are on Washington for legislative and regulatory updates that will affect the water and wastewater industry. Even as vaccine rollouts begin, the world continues to grapple with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the economic uncertainty that it has brought with it.
Early in the pandemic, estimates of the financial impact of COVID-19 on the water utility sector hovered at about $30 billion. This number included money from lost revenue and jobs through the end of 2020. In November, several industry organizations, including the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the American Water Works Association (AWWA), Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), National Rural Water Association, and the WateReuse Association authored a letter to Congress advocating for economic relief for the country’s 50,000 drinking water and 15,000 wastewater utilities.
“The COVID-19 [pandemic] really laid bare the water affordability challenge and the pinch that utilities are in,” Kristina Surfus, managing director of government affairs for NACWA, said. “Between decreasing utility revenues and putting strain on a greater number of households struggling to pay their bills than we’ve seen in the past, it has exposed the need for a greater federal commitment to helping people, to helping keep water affordable and accessible to everybody.”
In late December, Congress released the Fiscal Year 2021 Consolidated Appropriations bill, which contains $638M for low-income water utility bill assistance. The first-of-its-kind funding signaled the possibility of relief for the water sector in the new year, which NACWA called “a down payment on things to come in 2021 for the public clean water sector.” Other industry advocates hope that infrastructure funding will continue to be a priority for the next administration.
“We are cautiously optimistic that in efforts to get the country back on its feet economically there will be a focus on infrastructure investment,” Tommy Holmes, AWWA legislative director, said. “There’s no better way to invest infrastructure dollars than in the water sector because it creates a lot of jobs. You’re investing in public health and investing in environmental health, so we’re hopeful we’ll see a new emphasis on water infrastructure investment [for 2021].”
“We still need to figure out how to pay for [these infrastructure upgrades], but it’ll help stimulate the economy during these really challenging times,” Steve Dye, legislative director for the Water Environment Federation, said. “Our members are pushing hard on Congress to [allocate] more money into wastewater, stormwater, and drinking water infrastructure funding as we go into 2021. And we’ll be collaborating not only with our members and our member associations but across the entire water sector.”
Besides watching for infrastructure investment, there are a few key pieces of legislation that the industry will continue to watch in 2021.
Lead & Copper Rule
Just before the end of 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the final Lead and Copper Rule, marking the first update to the rule in 30 years. The final wording includes using science-based testing to better locate elevated levels of lead in drinking water, establishing a trigger level to jumpstart mitigation earlier and in more communities, and driving more and complete lead service line replacements.
“AWWA [is committed] to the removal of all lead service lines in their entirety,” American Water Works Association President Melissa Elliott said in a statement following the announcement. “The first step in accomplishing that task is the development of lead inventories in every community, and we enthusiastically support the inclusion of that requirement in the final rule.”
EPA continues to address emerging contaminants such as polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) through its PFAS Action Plan. Currently, the focus in Congress seems to be on determining whether to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known also as Superfund CERCLA. President-elect Biden has pledged to make the PFAS pollution crisis a top priority, and even indicated during his campaign that he would consider Superfund designation for these chemicals.
“If there is a CERCLA designation made for PFAS, that could have significant cost and liability implications for municipal water and wastewater utilities, as local city governments could be sued for PFAS contamination if the chemical is found within their system,” Holmes said. He and others said they would seek a liability exemption for water utilities if this is the case.
“From WEF’s perspective and WEF members’ perspectives, we’re extremely concerned about PFAS in the environment generally,” Dye said. “We want to be a partner in resolving that problem. Upstream sources [of PFAS pollution] need to be responsible for helping to address this problem and removing it, regulating it, and helping to cover some of the costs. That’s been one of the key points we’ve been really trying to emphasize with Capitol Hill because we’re receivers, not producers and users, of PFAS.”
As EPA and Congress work to determine what’s next for PFAS, Holmes, Dye and Surfus said any decision should be built on sound data and science, even if that means extending the timeline for a final decision on what to do about these pollutants.
“We don’t want Congress to bypass the regulatory process [because] we want EPA to do its job and base its determinations on sound science and risk assessments,” Surfus said. “[In the meantime,] we will continue to push for producer responsibility and protecting the public from the cost of mitigating PFAS.”
While the clean water sector hesitated to speculate on the status of the Waters of the United States, or WOTUS, rule, WEF’s Dye and Senior Director of Government Affairs Claudio Ternieden are watching the Biden administration’s transition list for clues.
“Ken Kopocis was the author, if you will, of the 2015 Obama WOTUS rule,” Ternieden said. “So, his name being on the list tells me something. It’s a pendulum that’s been going in different directions. But now we also have the Maui decision from the Supreme Court, which could have an impact on how we look at some aspects of jurisdictional waters.”
No matter what the new head of EPA and other staffers under Biden do with WOTUS, Holmes said developing replacement legislation won’t be quick.
“It took the Obama administration six years to develop its WOTUS rule,” he said. “It took the Trump administration three years, I believe, to come out with its version of the rule. That tells you it’s not a quick job. It is really difficult to decide these issues, and it often becomes site-specific, so [we may just have to wait].”
As coronavirus vaccine rollouts begin, the start of 2021 seems like a promising signal to the end of the pandemic, but we are not completely out of the woods yet.
“A lot of utilities had to rethink how they structured their workforce [during the pandemic],” Ternieden said. “They sent some people home to quarantine and stay there in case they needed them to come in as a last resort, and some utilities quarantined their whole team in place. But they still have older workers facing retirement, which has led us to this point of a really strained workforce today.”
Ternieden said the public health connection cannot be overstated when it comes to classifying wastewater workers as essential employees, and that vaccine priority should be extended to these individuals.
“If you cannot maintain your infrastructure to provide water and wastewater services, you will not have a viable fight against COVID-19 anywhere,” he said. “Our workers are essential, and when it comes to vaccinations, they too need to be [included] for vaccinations so that they can maintain our water and wastewater services.”
As utilities struggle to come out of the pandemic, rate payers, particularly in low-income areas, will also need help.
“[Throughout the pandemic,] there has been a moratorium on utility shutoffs, but people are still using water,” Dye said. “They’re still using wastewater and sewers, but they’re not paying for it. That has a cost that will eventually need to be paid for down the line.” Dye noted there is deep concern that customers will find themselves in a difficult situation when bills come due. “So, we’ve been working hard to get some sort of an assistance program for these ratepayers established,” he said.
As we emerge from the havoc that 2020 has wrought on our industry and our way of life, prioritizing these issues will be the job of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“Integrative planning is the capstone of a lot of these issues because we’ve allowed [our government bodies] to now reflect on the COVID-19 impact and affordability issues analysis,” Ternieden said. “Now is the time to put pressure on Capitol Hill.” WW
About the Author: Alanna Maya is Editor for WaterWorld magazine. Email her at [email protected].