Congress approved some of the most significant updates to the country’s drinking water management in two decades Wednesday, at a time when the safety of tap water has become a major concern for many Americans — but the new changes on their own aren’t expected to fix some of the most pressing problems.
The Senate’s passage of the Water Resources Development Act, dubbed the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, S. 3021 (115), gives lawmakers a major achievement to tout back home, especially for House members facing tough reelection races in districts grappling with drinking water problems. That includes place such as Flint, Michigan, which is still dealing with the aftermath of its lead contamination crisis, as well as communities stretching from the Northeast to the Midwest and Southeast that are finding alarming concentrations of so-called Teflon chemicals in their water.
“Safe drinking water for our families is something we should all agree on. And this bipartisan bill delivers for communities, like Parchment, [Mich.] dealing with PFAS contamination issues,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement when the measure passed the House in September, referring to extremely high levels of nonstick chemicals found in the community’s water. The issue has become a hot topic in Michigan, where a poll by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found Upton’s challenger, Democrat Matt Longjohn, just four points down.
For local water managers, the bill’s biggest boon is the prospect of new federal funding contained in the broader water resources legislation. The bill reauthorizes the Safe Drinking Water Act for the first time in two decades and nearly doubles the authorized funding level of the popular State Revolving Fund program that makes low-interest loans for drinking water upgrades and expansions. It also offers a two-year, $100 million reauthorization of a program popular with lawmakers and the Trump administration, dubbed WIFIA, that provides large-scale water infrastructure projects loans at the Treasury Department’s long-term interest rate.
Bart Johnsen-Harris with green group Environment America argued that tackling the funding problem will be a major step towards solving just about every other problem.
“Really the shortcoming that we have right now with water infrastructure is a lack of funding,” he said.
The measure also contains several provisions relating to specifically to lead problems, for instance, requiring that EPA estimate how much it would cost to replace all lead service lines in use by public water systems and strengthening work around monitoring for the potent neurotoxin in school drinking water — a thorny policy issue since the Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government can’t mandate such testing. The bill also creates an EPA grant program to fund the replacement of drinking water fountains in schools that contain lead. Until 2014, companies could market fountains as “lead-free” even if they contained as much as 8 percent lead.
And one of the biggest policy changes made in the measure is a new requirement that smaller communities monitor their water for emerging contaminants. Towns smaller than 10,000 people have been exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act’s testing mandates, and the new legislation would require communities as small as 3,300 people to participate in testing. Smaller communities often struggle with the cost and technical complexity of water monitoring, but they also suffer from some of the most dangerous drinking water problems.
Those provisions offer modest help for dealing with the PFAS contamination that is alarming communities across the country, according to Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.
“For PFAS, it’s a step, but just a baby step — [there’s] lots more left to do to solve the PFAS problems,” he said by email.
The crux of the problem is the Safe Drinking Water Act’s stringent scientific and cost-benefit requirements around setting mandatory contamination limits, argued Erik Olson with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This certainly does not significantly change the guts of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” he said. “Standard setting and enforcement and those kinds of things that Congress really hasn’t taken a look at in decades aren’t tackled here.”
EPA has not regulated a new contaminant under the 1974 law in the more than two decades since new scientific and cost-benefit requirements were put into place. PFAS, Olson argued, are a perfect example of how the system is broken.
The Trump administration’s EPA has said it will take the steps necessary to consider regulating the two best-studied types of PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but has acknowledged that the process would take years, and that there is no guarantee it will result in a regulatory limit at all.
Ahead of the 2016 election, House Democrats indicated they could seek to reform the drinking water law if they took power, an effort that could regain attention if they win control of the House in November.
In the meantime, a measure, H.R. 3106 (115), to require EPA to set a regulatory limit for PFAS, effectively routing it around some of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s more cumbersome requirements, has gained bipartisan support in the House.
This article originally ran in Politico Pro.