E&C Democrats Release GAO Report on State of Water Infrastructure in Areas of Declining Population
Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Ranking Member Paul Tonko (D-NY) released a report today from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), detailing the state of water infrastructure in selected midsize and large cities with declining populations, commonly known as legacy cities. The report shows the immediate need for legislation introduced by Tonko and Pallone, aimed at improving crumbling water infrastructure and enhancing the quality of safe drinking water in communities across the nation.
Key findings in the report include tremendous financial needs that exist for improving water infrastructure in cities with declining populations like New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, among others. Additionally, current utility rates have been found to place a heavy financial burden on low-income households in these types of communities. Additional findings can be viewed in the report summary.
“Americans living in legacy cities rely on water systems with lead pipes, high leakage rates, combined sewer overflow issues, and a significant backlog of deferred maintenance. At the same time, declining rate payer bases puts added pressure to raise the rates for those that remain in these cities, often for those who can least afford it. These residents are statistically more likely to be low-income or unemployed,” said Tonko.
“I thank the GAO team for this detailed report. It illustrates what we have seen for years – legacy cities need additional assistance, and our existing federal programs are not designed to address their structural and demographic challenges. Along with Ranking Member Pallone, I am committed to fighting for a reassessment of EPA’s definition of affordability and an increase in federal investments in water systems in these cities. Without improving the federal partnership, our nation’s most disadvantaged communities will continue to struggle to provide clean, reliable, and affordable water,” Tonko concluded.
“This report reinforces the lessons from the crisis in Flint, and highlights the fact that drinking water problems are impacting communities nationwide,” Pallone said. “The federal government plays an essential role in funding water infrastructure projects, particularly in disadvantaged communities. The need is too great to be ignored, and it’s time for Congress to act.”
Earlier this year, Reps. Tonko and Pallone introduced H.R. 4653, the Assistance, Quality, and Affordability (AQUA) Act of 2016 and H.R. 6116, the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 2016. These bills would support legacy cities’ drinking water systems by:
- Reauthorizing the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) at significantly higher levels. The Drinking Water SRF was identified as the primary source of federal funds to support drinking water infrastructure projects. Additional federal investments will ensure that more projects are able to be funded, helping to reduce the growing backlog of deferred maintenance.
- Increasing assistance for disadvantaged communities. Expanding the definition of disadvantaged communities will ensure that more communities with low-income residents are able to qualify for this designation. These bills also mandate a set-aside of not less than 6 percent to be spent on subsidies, such as loan forgiveness, for these communities. By increasing the overall amount of funding available from the Drinking Water SRF, this set aside will also grow substantially.
- Requiring States to create affordability criteria and identify ways to assist disadvantaged communities to meet these criteria. States must start thinking about the affordability issues faced by low-income rate payers. From the federal perspective, an injection of new, federal funds, particularly when offered as a subsidy, will take some of the burden for system improvements and maintenance off of low-income rate payers.
Tonko is the Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, which has jurisdiction over drinking water. Pallone serves as the Ranking Member for the full Energy and Commerce Committee.