A Good First Step for our Infrastructure

The Biden administration has led Congress to recognize and address the water infrastructure issues plaguing the country, but more must be done.

Nooksack River | Photo by American Rivers

It’s hard not to get excited about the investment included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would invest $55 billion in water infrastructure, $12 billion for flood management and  over $4.5 billion for watershed restoration. However, our 2021 Blueprint for Action report recommends investing $200 billion for improving water infrastructure, $200 billion for modernizing flood management, and $100 billion for restoring watersheds in our community.

The Biden administration has reenergized and spurred Congress to recognize and address the myriad of water resources issues that require federal investment. Now that the Senate has passed on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, the House will get the chance to come up with their own proposal. It’s worth remembering that the House included over $104 billion for water infrastructure compared to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (based on S. 914) which included $55 billion for water infrastructure.

Water Infrastructure

These numbers may seem exorbitant, but investment in our water resources is long overdue. In 1977, 63 percent of total capital spending for water and wastewater systems came from federal agencies; today that number is less than nine percent. There are over two million people who lack access to running water or basic indoor plumbing, which disproportionately affects Black, Latino and Indigenous communities. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides over $43 billion for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRF). Importantly, there is a provision that reduces the state cost share for the first two years to 10 percent and directs 49 percent of the funding to be administered as grants and completely forgivable loans.

Stormwater flooding, Washington, DC | Photo by Lynette Batt
Stormwater flooding, Washington, DC | Photo by Lynette Batt

This investment will not only fund programs for small and disadvantaged communities ($510 million), sewer overflow and stormwater reuse grants ($1.4 billion), and the Indian Reservation drinking water program ($250 million), it will also fund studies on advanced clean water technologies, stormwater infrastructure technology, and historical funding distribution to small and disadvantaged communities.

American Rivers supports increased funding for water infrastructure in any bipartisan infrastructure package, including:

  • $10 billion per year for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund
  • $10 billion per year for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund
  • A minimum of 20% of SRF funding for additional subsidization for disadvantaged communities
  • A minimum of 20% of SRF funding for the Green Project Reserve

Flood Management

As the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework continues to evolve, it’s essential that infrastructure projects are not placed in the floodplain and are designed to be resilient to future floods. Climate change has normalized more frequent and intense weather events exacerbating flooding and displacing many and causing billions of dollars of damage to property. These issues are not subsiding anytime soon, and existing flood management practices are not built to withstand worsening floods. Congress has responded by including sizable investments in flood management, including for Flood Mitigation Assistance ($3.5 billion), Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities ($1 billion), Federal Assistance to FEMA ($2.2 billion), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inland flood management ($2.5 billion). Moving forward, we must continue to promote equitable, integrated flood management and prioritize nature-based approaches to managing floods. 

Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Leake
Flooding in Baton Rouge, LA | Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Leake, courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

American Rivers supports increased funding for flood management in any bipartisan infrastructure package, including:

  • $10 billion over five years for the FEMA BRIC program, with 20% set aside for natural infrastructure projects
  • $5 million annually for the Federal Interagency Floodplain Management Task Force
  • $5 billion for flood mapping programs with FEMA
  • $50 million annually for Flood Plain Management Services with the U.S. Army Corps.

Restoring Watersheds

Dams are a part of the 2 million barriers that prevent fish from migrating upstream and alter the natural conditions of rivers and watersheds. Removing vulnerable dam structures is a multi-purpose, multi-benefit approach that will allow rivers to slowly return to a natural riverine habitat and also prevent old and unmaintained dam failures. The bill includes $1.6 billion for dam removal and dam safety — a necessary down payment for restoring healthy, free-flowing rivers and protecting communities from outdated, dangerous dams. Additionally, there is $743 million included for hydropower dams to do environmental improvements, dam safety, or grid resilience projects.

Smitherman's Dam Removal, Little River, NC 11/2013 | Gerrit Jobsis
Smitherman’s Dam Removal, Little River, NC | Photo by Gerrit Jobsis

Our watersheds are also threatened by a changing climate. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework provides an opportunity to restore and manage our watersheds and contribute to President Biden’s ambitious goal of conserving 30% of land and water by 2030. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would provide the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with $255 million, including $162 million for the Klamath Basin. The Bureau of Reclamation would receive $200 million for multi-benefit projects and management related to watersheds, the U.S. Army Corps would receive $2 billion for Ecosystem Restoration, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service would receive $468 million for watershed programs.

American Rivers supports increased funding for watershed restoration in any bipartisan infrastructure package, including:

  • $1.6 billion for Dam Safety and Dam Removal programs
  • $743 million included for hydropower dams to do environmental improvements
  • $1 billion to the NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection Program
  • $1 billion for the Habitat Conservation Program with NOAA
  • Ensure that all infrastructure funding prioritizes resilient and nature-based solutions such as restoring wetlands, rivers, streams and watersheds, floodplain restoration and reconnection, and that new projects and repairs restore natural functions and features wherever practicable.

It is also worth acknowledging Western Water Infrastructure would receive $8.3 billion, funding programs related to aging water infrastructure ($3.2 billion), water storage ($1.15 billion), water recycling and reuse ($1 billion), the waterSMART program ($400 million, with $100 million for natural infrastructure), and drought contingency plans ($300 million).

While investments of this size are a promising start, they are only the first step. Now is the time to make the necessary, equitable investment to remedy historical disenfranchisement, address pressing water resource issues, and prepare for the future problems that will be driven by climate change.