Some observations about the new law & what it tells us about the politics of water infrastructure in America
The Senate recently passed the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) by a 99-1 vote; today President Trump signed it into law. AWIA is pretty slender as federal infrastructure bills go, weighing in at 332 pages and 70,000 words.
What follows are some thoughts about AWIA’s main water infrastructure provisions and what they tell us about the state of water policy and politics in America. This isn’t really a coherent essay or an exhaustive commentary; it’s a series of cursory observations on the bits that strike me as interesting.
What’s new in Title II
Titles I, III, and IV include some important provisions, but much of it is garden-variety authorizations for sundry projects and studies, along with some light regulatory housekeeping. As a careful observer of water policy, the most interesting parts to me come in Title II—Drinking Water System Improvement.
Sections 2014-2015 have received the most public attention, as they include increases in federal grants along with changes to the State Drinking Water Revolving Fund program. Those funds will help with infrastructure investment, but is really a drop in the trillion-dollar bucket of America’s water infrastructure needs. That money will make a splash ahead of the midterm elections (more on that later), but isn’t all that interesting from a policy perspective.
Here’s what I find most intriguing in Title II:
- Sec. 2001: Indian Reservation Drinking Water. Literally the first section of Title II is a marked expansion of grant programs for tribal drinking water infrastructure—$20 million annually for the next four years.
That isn’t much in the grand scheme of American infrastructure, but it’s potentially huge for some tribal systems. My research with Mellie Haider & David Switzer has found that tribal facilities lag far behind non-tribal facilities in regulatory compliance, in part because tribes weren’t eligible for the vast federal grants available in the 1970s and 1980s. Sec. 2001 is a step toward correcting that. More generally, it’s fascinating that this program is the very first thing in Title II.* Hopefully this prominent spot in the AWIA presages greater efforts to build tribal drinking water capacity.
- Sec. 2002: Intractable Water Systems. In substance, Sec. 2002 isn’t terribly exciting—it just funds a study on water systems that consistently fail to meet regulatory requirements. But this section (along with Sec. 2010, discussed below) signals that Uncle Sam is interested in doing something about perennially poor water systems. Of particular interest are the tens of thousands of small utilities that serve fewer than a thousand customers, many of which lack the financial, physical, and human capacity to operate modern drinking water systems.*
- Sec. 2006-7: School lead testing & drinking fountain replacement. Section 2006 authorizes $75 million over three years to support lead testing in school drinking water lines. Sec. 2007 provides $15 million for school drinking fountain replacement. These programs remain voluntary, however, so its effectiveness will depend on local officials participating proactively. Federalism! As with most aspects of national drinking water policy, this only works insofar as local governments make it work.
- Sec. 2010: Ownership provisions. Innocuously named “Additional Considerations for Compliance,” this section empowers state regulators to “require the owner or operator of a public water system to assess consolidation or transfer of ownership… to achieve compliance with national primary drinking water regulations.” This section is aimed at repeat violators of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and although it’s weak in substance—it doesn’t actually require consolidation or change in ownership—it signals something about the potential direction of future water regulation. More frequent consolidation, privatization, and/or public condemnation of failing water systems may be on the horizon.*
What AWIA tells us about the politics of water infrastructure
AWIA provides more evidence that water infrastructure remains an very hot issue at the moment. A 115th Congress that has been historically contentious—it might struggle to pass a resolution that puppies are cute—just passed an infrastructure law with near consensus. The timing is noteworthy, as well: AWIA arrives just in time for midterm elections. Credit-claiming opportunities abound!
Crucially, none of the funding authorized in AWIA will turn into actual water infrastructure until Congress appropriates funds for it. Conveniently for the 115th Congress, the task of appropriating money for all of that water infrastructure will fall to the 116th.
How utility people—and everybody else—think about water issues
Each year the American Water Works Association (AWWA) conducts a survey of its members on the State of the Water Industry (SOTWI). The survey seeks to “identify and track significant challenges facing the water industry.” Among other things, the SOTWI survey asks respondents about their perceptions of various water issues, and so broadly gauges attitudes within the water sector.
It’s common for water sector folks to lament that the public doesn’t understand water issues. After several years of responding to SOTWI and reading the results, I wondered: How does the public perceive water issues? How closely do attitudes within the industry align with those of the general public?
Organizations like Texas A&M’s Institute for Science, Technology & Public Policy (ISTPP) offer a way to answer those questions scientifically. In the summer of 2015 I worked with ISTPP colleagues to deploy a nationally representative mass public survey of attitudes toward energy, agriculture, and environmental issues in the United States. The ISTPP survey yielded nearly 2,000 respondents. As part of the ISTPP survey, we included several items about water policy taken directly from the SOTWI survey. Identical wording and question structure provides an extraordinary opportunity to compare attitudes within the water sector (the “pros”) against attitudes in the general public (the “Joes”).
The SOTWI questionnaire included 34 items; from among these we selected 11 items that directly ask the respondents’ perceptions of water issues such as water resources, capital, and affordability for low-income households. All 11 attitudinal questions are based on a five-point scale: unimportant (1), slightly important (2), important (3), very important (4), and critical (5).
Convergence & divergence
Some interesting patterns emerged. Average values ranged between 3.2 and 4.6 among the Pros, with infrastructure replacement emerging as a clear #1 priority. The general public averaged 3.10-4.11, with long-term supply availability as the top value. Ordinal rankings—that is, which issues were more or less important relative to each other—were fairly consistent between Pros and Joes.
But the really interesting picture emerges when we look at the disparities in average scores across the eleven issue area. This graph shows the difference in average score for Pros minus average for Joes:
The most striking disparities are at the top and bottom of the graph. Water sector respondents perceive infrastructure replacement, regulatory compliance, and source water protection as much more important than does the public. Meanwhile, the public evidently views low-income affordability as significantly more important than does the water sector.
Together, these results offer clues about the areas of relative harmony and dissonance between the American water sector and the American public. Water organizations and utility communications staff should perhaps concentrate on developing effective ways to convey the significance of infrastructure replacement, regulatory compliance, and source water protection.
By the same token, these findings suggest that low-income affordability matters much more to the public Joes than to water sector Pros. It stands to reason that taking affordability seriously can help utility leaders legitimize their own priorities to the public.
Social science and defying the choice between clean and affordable water
Warning: sports cliché coming.
Boxing is more popular as a literary metaphor than as a spectator sport these days. Still, I’m a boxing fan. The combination of athleticism, strategy, and drama of the sport are unrivaled.
Every fighter wants to win, naturally. But there’s no shame in losing a hard-fought bout to a tough opponent. When you take on great opponents, sometimes you lose—on the scorecards, by stoppage, or by knockout. Fans greatly respect unbeaten fighters, but revere those who risk a blemished record to take on the toughest challengers. Most beloved are those who suffer early knockdowns to come back and win. The one kind of loss that boxing fans can’t abide is quitting on the stool: when a fighter chooses not to continue—not because he’s injured, not because his trainer decides he can’t win, but because he lacks the will to continue.
Technical triumph, political pessimism
Last month I participated in an all-day meeting with a group of professors from across the country, all of whom work on drinking water and water quality. We were hashing out a vision for future research to advance the water sector. I was one of just two social scientists in the room; the rest were civil, chemical, and environmental engineers. It was a stimulating and productive day.
But a remark by a renowned professor emeritus from one of America’s top schools of environmental engineering startled me, and has been nagging at me ever since.
“We are facing a future where we’ll simply need to accept higher levels of pollution,” he said. The Clean Water Act’s vision of fishable-and-swimmable waters was unattainable, he argued. His pessimism was not due to the emergence of new, impossibly difficult contaminants or technological barriers. The obstacles to clean water he identified were political and economic: the country simply wouldn’t pay for solutions to pollution. I’m not sure if all his fellow engineers agreed, but more than one head nodded in agreement.
Such pessimism is ironic, coming from an environmental engineer.
One of the most astonishing things about the 1972 Clean Water Act and 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act is that, at the time Congress passed them, nobody really knew how any of it was going to work. The technology needed to achieve fishable-and-swimmable and to ensure safe drinking water nationwide simply didn’t exist at the time. Political scientist Charles Jones called this process speculative augmentation: politicians called for a cleaner environment, and entrusted the bureaucracy and the emerging field of environmental engineering to figure out how to deliver it.
Amazingly, it basically worked. The 20th century was an unprecedented period of advancement for water—it was nothing short of a triumph. Water utilities, sanitary sewers, and stormwater management saved more lives than all the world’s hospitals, and has done more to improve quality of life than any other economic policy. For all their problems, the CWA and SDWA have been pivotal in making those improvements in America. We owe much of that success to engineering research.
Environmental science and social science
The greatest water quality challenges of the 20th century were chemical, biological, and physical. Those challenges remain, and new water quality threats emerge all the time. But the most formidable obstacles ahead are social and political. We know how to handle water contaminants. We don’t know nearly as much about overcoming political barriers to water quality. That isn’t a reason to despair, it’s a reason to refocus.
Medical researchers aren’t paid to declare that diseases are incurable; water researchers shouldn’t counsel acceptance of pollution because politics are hard.
We are a prosperous and resourceful people. I refuse to choose between water quality and affordability. To do so would be to consign society’s most vulnerable and future generations to suffer because we couldn’t or wouldn’t solve institutional problems. If dysfunctional politics force such choices, then we need rigorous, hard-headed research on water politics, policy, management, and finance to overcome them. There are lots of smart and insightful social scientists working on water; we need more. We need another moment of speculative augmentation, this time with social science finding the path forward.
The clean water fight’s not over—we’ve only just started the middle rounds.
Never quit on the stool.