By Mae Stevens

Calendar year 2021 was a whirlwind in the federal legislative arena. Congress focused its initial efforts on COVID-19 response through the March 2021 passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP). Then it subsequently shifted towards long-term economic recovery and infrastructure investment with the November 2021 passage of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Virtually every significant legislative movement across all sectors, including water infrastructure, came in these two large bills.

Key accomplishments for the sector include an effective tripling of federal investments in the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (CWSRF and DWSRF), large new pots of funding for lead service line replacement and PFAS remediation, and the authorization of a pilot program to help low-income water customers pay their bills. So, with all of this investment under our belt, what should water industry professionals look out for in 2022?

Build Back Better Act
The Build Back Better Act (BBB), the legislative version of President Biden’s ‘American Families Plan’ for comprehensive expansion of social programs and investment in climate priorities, is the bill currently taking up the media limelight. While the bill is most known for social priorities like paid family leave and universal pre-K, it also contains significant funding for the water sector, building on investments made in the IIJA. Namely, it includes the following provisions:

  • $9 billion in funding for lead remediation projects. This is on top of the $15 billion for lead replacement in the IIJA
  • $1.85 billion to address combined sewer overflows
  • $1 billion for rural and disadvantaged community water infrastructure upgrades
  • $225 million to fund the low-income water customer assistance program. This program was authorized but not funded by the IIJA

While IIJA makes a far greater direct investment in water infras­tructure than BBB, it should also be noted that the bill’s significant investment in reducing climate pollution is an investment in our nation’s water systems. For example, the more work done to reduce carbon emissions, helping slow the pace of climate change and extreme weather events, the less stress put on our water systems from events such as extreme drought and floods. This ultimately will help water systems continue to supply clean, safe, reliable and affordable water to homes and businesses across the US.

BBB has notably been stalled in its progress so far this winter, with holdout Senators Kirsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) still not yet on board. Both lawmakers, however, have shown that they are willing to stay at the negotiating table and work with their Democratic colleagues to find common ground and vote in favor of the bill. President Biden has scheduled his State of the Union address for March 1 and this is being seen by some as the new target date for getting BBB across the finish line.

Water Resources Development Act
Since 2014, Congress has passed a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) every two years. WRDA typically includes water in­frastructure funding and policy changes for both US EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). This year, following the IIJA’s large-scale investments in US EPA programs, the bill is likely to only include USACE provisions. If BBB fails, however, there is a chance that its water infrastructure provisions could be folded into WRDA.

Congress kicked off the WRDA 2022 process in January by fielding stakeholder requests and holding initial legislative hearings but expect the process of drafting and holding a final vote on the bill to last at least through the summer. WRDA tends to enjoy strong bipartisan support – the most recent bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee – so clean passage is expected in mid to late 2022.

Congress has yet to agree to a Fiscal Year 2022 spending bill. Rather, lawmakers have passed a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) to keep the government funded at FY2021 levels, averting the political, economic and logistical nightmare of a government shutdown. While the House and Senate Appropriations Com­mittees have been hard at work drafting a spending bill, it ap­pears Republicans may not be motivated to act because the current spending remains at Trump-era levels. Democrats, eager to advance their first spending bill under the Biden Administration, will likely need to engage in significant negotiations to find middle ground acceptable to both parties. Although the path ahead remains murky, House and Senate draft versions of FY2022 bills include increased funding for key water programs.

While we await either compromise on FY2022 appropriations or yet another CR, the process is soon to kick off for Fiscal Year 2023 appropriations. This will begin in earnest this month when President Biden is expected to send his FY2023 budget request to Congress, spurring committees to hold hearings and draft legislation in line with his priorities throughout the rest of the fiscal year, which ends September 30.

About the author
Mae Stevens is an Executive Vice President at Signal Group and the Chair of Signal Water. She provides strategic environmental and infrastructure policy expertise to a diverse range of corporate, municipal and non-profit clients. Prior to joining Signal Group, Stevens served as Environmental Policy Advisor to Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), handling the Senator’s responsibilities on the Environment and Public Works Committee, including staffing the Senator during the crafting and passage of the FAST Act and the 2016 and 2018 Water Resources Development Act bills.


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