By Scott Berry, Director of Policy and Government Affairs, US Water Alliance

November 18, 2020

President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris made history this month in more ways than one, securing their win with the highest number of votes ever for a Presidential ticket. In addition to winning the presidency, the Democrats maintained control of the House, despite losing seats in key battleground states. But, while there remains a path for Democrats to gain control of the Senate with the two run-off elections in Georgia, it will certainly be a very uphill battle. Taking office with a divided government will certainly present its own roadblocks for the Biden Administratin’s agenda.
 Also casting a shadow over Biden’s first term is President Trump’s refusal to concede and his recalcitrance with respect to transition protocol. However challenging, President Trump’s flagrant disregard for the traditional transition of President power isn’t surprising and President-Elect Biden has continued with his transition planning undaunted. Earlier this month, they released the names of their agency review teams and laid out the top four priorities for their incoming administration: COVID-19 relief, economic recovery, racial justice, and climate change. The Alliance is heartened that water is critical pathway to progress on all four of these priorities.
Looking down the ballot, Utah and Wyoming both had statewide ballot measures on water management. In Utah, residents approved Constitutional Amendment D, allowing municipalities to supply water outside municipal boundaries. In Utah, water utilities in larger cities are in the practice of extending service areas beyond municipal borders to provide greater water access for more remote communities. The constitutional amendment codifying this practice stemmed from concerns that without explicitly equal rights, customers outside city limits might be treated unfairly—a concern amplified by long-term drought and other climate impacts on water supply. The passage of Amendment D affirms that all customers, regardless of residence, now hold the same legal status with respect to water service. In Wyoming however, residents defeated Constitutional Amendment A. If approved, the measure would have removed the constitutional limit on the debt a municipality may incur for municipal sewer projects. The vote against measure leaves in place the existing debt limit.
In addition to the statewide ballot measures, several cities and counties had local measures on the ballot. In Denver, CO residents passed Ballot Measure 2A—approving a sales tax to fund environmental and climate-related programs. Of note is Ballot Measure 2A’s explicit call for maximizing investments in communities of color, under resourced communities, and other communities most vulnerable to climate change. In Santa Clara Valley, CA, residents approved Santa Clara Valley Water District Measure S, a parcel tax renewing the Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Program. In Orange County, FL residents passed Question 1, the “Prohibit Water Pollution Charter Amendment,” which provides protections for the natural rights of all waters in Orange County.
Underlying all of this is the reality that the coronavirus is surging, with cases per day increasing by 69 percent over the average case rate from two weeks ago. The virus casts a pall over the coming months and will be certain to define the conclusion to 2020 and President-Elect Biden’s first 100 days. While there is discussion of COVID-relief legislation potentially passing in the lame duck period, negotiations have been inconclusive thus far. However, there is some optimism around a potential water infrastructure package in the coming weeks. Staffers on both sides of the isle have indicated that “negotiations [in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee] have been productive and positive.” But a final water infrastructure bill would draw on language from H.R. 7575, the “Water Resources Development Act of 2020,” as well as from its broader sister legislation in the Senate, S. 3591, meaning that there is no guarantee that the water and wastewater provisions from the Senate bill make it into the final negotiated package. Though if no legislation materializes in the lame duck session, there will be ample opportunity to try again next Congress.
While much remains to be seen before the year ends, 2021 could shape up to be a strong year for investments in water and the systems that carry it, at all levels of government.