By Joya Banerjee and Sarah Huckins

May 25, 2021

After a devastating year following the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, signs of hope are beginning to shine through. The Alliance convened the Recovering Stronger Midwest Listening Session against the backdrop of the vaccine rollout and the release of the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan, which includes a historic $111 billion for water infrastructure investment. With the introduction of this plan, the water sector is seeing new partnership emerging at the federal level, after decades of disinvestment.

In this changing landscape, water investment remains bipartisan, and leaders can emhpasize this when seeking to make change. According to the Value of Water Campaign’s annual Value of Water Index, Americans from all political persuasions and walks of life strongly support water infrastructure investment. The poll, conducted in March 2021, shows 78 percent of voters support a proposal to reinvest in the nation’s water infrastructure. At the state and local level, the Alliance sees increased demand for an active federal role in the recovery effort, and One Water as an important pathway towards recovery.
Through regional Listening Sessions, a survey of the Alliance network, and targeted interviews, the Alliance is hearing that leaders across the country are poised for change. At the Midwest Listening Session, participants highlighted that this time of crisis is spurring action and innovation. Challenges related to the pandemic are driving a more expansive way of thinking about solutions across the sector. The pandemic also is shining new light on the critical importance of water systems to public health. Customers and policymakers alike are beginning to understand more deeply the cost and effort it takes to provide water service—water is becoming a more visible issue. In short, the water sector is entering a pivotal moment.

What We Heard in the Midwest:

Recovery must address systemic inequities. Leaders in the Midwest underscored the need to look at all recovery efforts through an equity lens. Participants acknowledged that while there is still a long way to go towards advancing equity and environmental justice, the conversations people are having now are starkly different compared to just five years ago. In this era, social and racial equity are being brought to the fore, instead of relegated to the shadows. Participants described a growing understanding of the ways policies and practices exacerbate systemic inequities and highlighted a growing use of data and collaboration with new partners to address these inequities.
Recovery must be community-led and grounded in local expertise. In both urban and rural communities, participants see a sustained focus on working with local partners and an understanding that local stakeholders are the most knowledgeable about challenges on the ground. The session underscored the need for a multiracial and multi-generational movement that centers and builds capacity for community-based action. As states leverage federal funding, policymakers need to be intentional about ensuring that individuals from impacted communities are included at the tables where policy decisions are crafted.
Recovery must be built upon strong partnerships. Throughout the Midwest Session, participants highlighted the need for partnership across sectors and across levels of government. A key variable in securing these types of partnership is trust—which participants indicated is bolstered by a voluntary approach to collaboration. This is especially true related to agriculture-municipal partnerships to improve water quality. Session participants noted that partnerships are essential as stakeholders strategize how to take advantage of the historic funding slated in the American Jobs Plan. Participants see recent federal funding demonstrating greater alignment with needs at the state level, with the passage of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides $150 billion to state, local, and Tribal governments, and the American Rescue Plan Act, which provides another $350 billion in emergency funding.
Recovery must be forward-looking. The Midwest Listening Session echoed the discussion in the West with participants emphasizing the need to focus on advancing through recovery, rather than on returning to the pre-pandemic status quo. Participants highlighted the need to prepare for funding from a future infrastructure bill and to think about how to use funds beyond the immediate crisis. Participants also see a need to consider how to deploy federal funding in more innovative ways. Decision makers need to be thinking about where communities will be in the next 50 years. Throughout the session, participants noted innovative policies and programs already in place—a few examples from the session are listed below:
Climate Adaptation and Resilience  
  • In Ohio, Cleveland’s Climate Action Plan, launched in 2013, seeks to advance social and racial equity while building resilience to climate impacts. With support from the 90-member Climate Action Advisory Committee and the 300 resident leaders who participated in workshops throughout the city, Cleveland updated the Climate Action Plan in 2018. Cleveland’s Climate Action Fund is one mechanism that supports the priorities laid out in the plan.
  • In Minnesota, Governor Tim Waltz issued Executive Order 19-37 in December 2019, which names climate change as an “existential threat that impacts all Minnesotans and our ability to thrive.” The Executive Order also establishes the Climate Change Subcabinet to identify policies and strategies that will enhance climate resiliency throughout the state.
  • Also in Minnesota, the state House and Senate introduced HF 1445 and SF 1746, which outline a proposal allocating $2.9 million over two years for a climate resiliency program run by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. If passed into law, the funding will provide grants paid to cities, town, and tribal nations for climate risk assessment, planning, and pre-design needs for upgrading stormwater infrastructure.
Affordability and Access 
  • In Illinois, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched the Utility Billing Relief (UBR) Program in July 2020 to help residents struggling to afford their water bills. While further solutions are needed to support renters, the program uses Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) eligibility to enroll homeowners. The UBR Program provides participants with reduced water and sewer rates and grants debt relief to residents that demonstrate an ability to pay their bills at the reduced rate for one year.
  • In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine announced the Home Grant Relief Program, which provides Ohioans assistance with rent, mortgage, and utilities—including water and sewer bills. The program started in 2020 with a $50 million allocation made available because of CARES Act funding. $100 million more was set aside in February 2021. The funds have been distributed to community action agencies (CAA), and residents apply for assistance through the CAAs.
  • In Michigan, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department extended the water shutoff moratorium through 2022. Community based organizations, like We the People of Detroit, have been instrumental in pushing for this reform.
Infrastructure, Jobs, and Economic Recovery 
  • In Minnesota, the Pollution Control Agency is partnering with the MN Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division to apply for Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grants through FEMA. The BRIC program helps states, local communities, tribes, and territories undertake pre-disaster mitigation projects. The program also funds capacity building activities.
  • WaterFunder developed the Project Readiness Bridge Loan Program to help distressed communities meet state and federal funding requirements. In many cases, vulnerable communities do not have the resources to undertake the process of applying for government funding. The Bridge Loan Program funds design, engineering, pre-construction, and advisory services needed for communities to demonstrate eligibility for longer-term funding for water infrastructure projects.
Innovation and New Models of Partnership 
  • In Minnesota, Governor Walz issued Executive Order 19-24 which calls for all state agencies to consult with each Minnesota Tribal Nation to identify priority issues. The Executive Order also institutes the Tribal State Relations Training (TSRT) program. The Tribal-State Advisory Group on American Indian Training and Consultation, which includes members of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Nation, leads the implementation of the program. The program’s stated mission is to empower “authentic and respectful relationships between state agencies and American Indian tribes.”
  • In Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio, the City of Ames, the City of Cedar Rapids, Illinois Soybean Association, Ohio Corn & Wheat, Ohio Soybean Council, and Quantified Ventures are partnering together through the Soil and Water Outcomes Fund. The fund provides financial incentives to farmers who transition to on-farm conservation practices by selling environment outcomes.
  • In Ohio, the Ohio Agriculture Conservation Initiative (OACI) developed a voluntary certification program for farmers implementing best management practices. OACI is a collaborative effort among agricultural, environmental, and academic stakeholders that allows a diverse group of partners to collect data and learn what practices and tools are most successful, which benefits both the state and growers.
Water Quality 
  • In Wisconsin, the PFAS Action Council (WisPAC), a group of nearly 20 state agencies, developed a comprehensive PFAS Action Plan, published in December 2020. To receive public input on the Action Plan, WisPAC conducted a survey, created an advisory group, and held public meetings. The creation of the Action Council and subsequent Action Plan followed Governor Tony Evers’ Executive Order #40, which called for a multi-agency PFAS Action Plan for the state.
  • In Michigan, the Flint Community Water Lab is the first community-based laboratory of its kind and provides Flint residents with a trusted resource for free water testing. In addition to supporting the Flint Community Water Lab, Freshwater Future partnered with local organizations to launch the Youth Water Testing Program, which trains teens to collect tap water samples for testing.
  • In Ohio, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s combined sewer overflow consent decree, known as Project Clean Lake, outlines $3 billion of investments that will reduce the amount of pollution entering our Great Lake. This includes significant investment in green infrastructure to store stormwater before it makes its way to the combined sewer system.
The Midwest Listening Session closed with an affirmation that this is a powerful time to be in the water sector, with many opportunities to embrace change and to right historical wrongs. One of the through lines in the discussion was a recognition of, and appreciation for, an increased willingness to have open conversations about equity and environmental justice with many different people at the table. But amidst the indications of hope, the session also highlighted the challenges associated with the long and complex route that federal funding will need to travel to reach those on the ground. Participants emphasized that while the historic $111 billion proposed by President Biden for water infrastructure is positive, there is a critical need to help under-resourced communities with accessing and leveraging federal funding. This is an ongoing challenge, and one that the Alliance anticipates will resonate across regions.

What’s Next:

The Midwest Regional Listening Session is the second of six Listening Sessions to bring together state policymakers and One Water leaders. These Listening Sessions aim to identify opportunities for action and shape recovery efforts at the state level. To read the recap of the West Listening Session, convened in March 2021, follow this link.
The Alliance’s Recovering Stronger Initiative seeks to reknit a local, state, and federal partnership for water. To learn more about the local, state, and federal components of transforming the nation’s water management, click here.