The Environmental Injustice of Declining Budgets for Water Infrastructure

by Evan Isaacson

February 15, 2018

This year more than most, it bears repeating that a budget is a moral document, or at least that it has moral implications. It's particularly important to remember not just because President Trump's budget is so appallingly skewed in favor of military spending – this looks to be one pricey parade – but also because of the administration's puzzling infrastructure proposal. 

It is no surprise that the Trump administration would craft an infrastructure plan heavily tilted toward the shiny objects of the infrastructure world – roads and bridges – even though a boost in drinking and wastewater projects could help deliver that "beautiful, clean water" that candidate Trump declared was very important to him, and which many of his supporters so desperately need. It is similarly unsurprising that Trump would take this opportunity to attack bedrock environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act's provision under which states require that applicants for licenses and permits observe clean water requirements (section 401) under the guise of knocking down "regulatory barriers" and "streamlining permitting." (The attack on section 401 is rich irony considering how important "states' rights" and "cooperative federalism" are supposed to be to this administration). 

But perhaps the biggest surprise about the new infrastructure plan was how significantly the Trump administration has proposed to shift the cost of infrastructure financing from the federal government to state and local governments. Even some conservative commentators are questioning the logic (and arithmetic) of shrinking the federal role in infrastructure financing to such a significant extent. 

The plan comes with echoes of infrastructure financing debates from decades past. During the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration took an axe to what had been one of the largest public works programs in American history. One of the most successful components of the Clean Water Act was its construction grants program, which provided billions of dollars per year (in some cases tens of billions in today's dollars) to help communities modernize their sewage treatment plants and wastewater infrastructure. 

The construction grants program was phased out and replaced with state-run revolving loan programs. And while this more innovative form of infrastructure financing has been recognized as a successful way to leverage state and local dollars, what is often overlooked about the transition from the construction grants program was just how substantially the federal role in infrastructure development shrank. There is no reason that federal funding could not have been maintained at prior levels once the revolving loan funds were created. 

But infrastructure financing isn't just about construction and jobs. It's an important, if overlooked, environmental – and environmental justice – issue, too. Fiscal decisions made decades ago have directly resulted in the underfunding of our nation's now dilapidated water system. EPA's most recent assessment of the backlog of projects needed to bring the nation's water infrastructure back to health is over $600 billion. Because of this, our water is much less clean and safe than it otherwise would have been, and these shortcomings harm vulnerable communities – from the biggest cities to the smallest towns – the most. The lead contamination and Legionella outbreaks in Flint, Michigan, put a fine point on this reality. 

Flint may be a particularly poor community in an economically distressed state, but the same general trend is affecting communities everywhere. Take, for example, Maryland, the state with the highest median income in the country and a vested interest in spending on clean water infrastructure for the sake of its beloved Chesapeake Bay. The state has eliminated several capital budget programs for water infrastructure and is looking to once again pass a capital budget for water that is well below already deficient levels. 

Just as the federal government is trying to shift the burden to the states, many states, in turn are passing responsibility down to communities like Baltimore or Flint that are far smaller than they used to be and that can no longer afford to maintain their water systems on their own. Low-income ratepayers cannot afford the increases necessary to maintain the system and, in some cases, are losing their homes simply because they cannot keep up with their ever-increasing water and sewage bills. 

This environmental injustice is gaining attention. Next month, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) is meeting to discuss environmental justice and water infrastructure financing and capacity. The charge from EPA to NEJAC is to make recommendations on a number of issues and needs facing low-income communities and households. 

Unfortunately, all of the discussions about water infrastructure financing reform and all of the innovative policy tools proposed are not going to be enough to fix the problem. And the president's water infrastructure plan does nothing more than kick the can down the road once again. By taking a page from the Reagan playbook and passing the buck down to the states and local governments, the Trump administration is effectively declining to address our nation's water woes and environmental injustices. The buck needs to stop at the White House and every governor's mansion if we want to turn things around. 

Where to start? By addressing the significant but not insurmountable challenge of water infrastructure funding. In fact, if Congress merely restored funding to levels from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, when our federal government provided an average of more than $130 billion (in today's dollars) per decade for the purpose of delivering clean and safe water, we'd make good progress toward achieving our goal of fishable, swimmable, drinkable water for all Americans.

If we want to make America's water infrastructure great again, then let's restore the federal role in infrastructure financing, not cut it further as the president's budget and infrastructure plan would do.

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Evan Isaacson, J.D., is a CPR Policy Analyst. He joined the organization in 2015 to work on its Chesapeake Bay program, having previously worked as a policy analyst at the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

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