Both chambers of Congress are starting to move ahead on water infrastructure legislation, as the coronavirus pandemic underscores the demands for clean water.
The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works gathered the last few comments on Friday on its plans to move two mammoth water infrastructure packages this year. The bills reauthorize legislation on water resource development and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
At the same time, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is gearing up to introduce its own big water bill, which should come by month’s end and be marked up over the summer, according to a committee aide.
Congress essentially updates those bills every two years to provide funding for flood control and drinking water grants to states.
The Senate environment panel Friday announced it will hold a full committee markup on both water bills for May 6. The committee said it’s taking precautions for those attending, including social distancing requirements.
Environment Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has touted the bills as a crucial to combating what he call “the most pressing crisis in decades"—the pandemic—and has noted that Democrats and Republicans have traditionally moved such bills swiftly to Senate passage.
The Senate legislation includes the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, which centers mostly on Army Corps of Engineers projects and policy, and would authorize roughly $17 billion in infrastructure projects.
A second bill, the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, would reauthorize programs under the Safe Drinking Water Act, including infrastructure that supports and improves drinking water, and provides resources and technical assistance for communities struggling to provide clean water.
The Senate drinking water infrastructure measure proposes roughly $2.5 billion in authorizations, and $300 million in grants for cleaning drinking water from emerging contaminants, particularly toxic PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
Focus on Single Bill
Over in the House, the transportation committee’s focus would be narrower, focusing on reauthorizing funding for water projects and policy under the Water Resources Development Act, largely under the purview of the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We’re aiming for introduction by the end of May,” said Bayley Sandy, spokesman for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
House passage for the measure is likely in the months ahead; water bills benefit projects in every state, and thus have historically gotten strong bipartisan backing.
The last big water reauthorization bill—America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (P. Law 115-270)—easily passed the House, and even breezed through the Republican-controlled Senate by a vote of 99-1.
Lawmakers also had been discussing a separate House infrastructure package that could include more dollars for water projects. But the outlook for a big infrastructure bill has dimmed, at least for now.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has signaled she wants the next economic recovery bill to focus on providing relief to state and local governments struggling to combat the coronavirus.
But at a news conference on Thursday, Pelosi suggested she’s considering at least one water-related provision in the next recovery package: an idea pushed by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) that would bar utilities from shutting off water access if customers can’t pay their bills.