Budget Targets Lead Pipe Removal, Water Infrastructure Fixes, Job Creation

Every day, tens of millions of Americans are basically drinking from lead straws. They get their drinking water from lead water pipes in the ground that can threaten their health by contributing high levels of lead to their families’ tap water. Tens of millions more are served by decrepit water supplies that struggle to provide water meeting basic health and safety standards. And when people in cities and towns large and small across the country flush their toilets, the wastewater often goes untreated into rivers and lakes during storms because of inadequate sewer and treatment plants. Others have no sanitation at all, left to “straight pipes” that take their raw waste directly to a nearby waterway, or still use backyard privies.

The time has come to invest in fixing our long-neglected water infrastructure flaws that have driven the American Society of Civil Engineers to grade our drinking water systems at a “C-“ and stormwater systems at a “D.” This is a report card we’d be ashamed to bring home to mom and dad.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) budget would make a down payment on addressing this crisis. It would invest $3.6 billion in water infrastructure. This would represent a modest but meaningful bump up from the current fiscal year of about $2.8 billion put into EPA water infrastructure funding.  

Ultimately, much more clearly will be needed. The President’s American Jobs Plan would invest $45 billion to remove all of the nation’s lead pipes from the ground, plus additional important investments in fixing our water infrastructure, for a total of $111 billion.

Investing in water infrastructure will be a big job creator. For example, a recent study by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that replacing all of Illinois’ lead service lines alone could create up to 224,500 jobs and $23 billion in additional economic activity. Expand that to a national investment, and the number of new good-paying jobs will be enormous. Indeed, a University of Massachusetts study found that investing $35 billion per year in water infrastructure would create about 475,000 jobs. And most of the jobs in the water utility sector pay a good living wage; even at the lower end of the spectrum, a Brookings study found that water industry jobs pay up to 50 percent more than comparable jobs in other fields. 

This investment will not only improve protection of our water and create good-paying jobs, but it can and will address environmental injustices. NRDC has learned from our partners in Flint, Newark, Pittsburgh and other cities, and from our reviews of EPA data, that those who are left behind by disinvestment in water infrastructure are disproportionately low-income communities of color. As a study and map reproduced below developed by my colleague Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick shows, lead contamination is a nationwide problem, but is often most especially concentrated in certain less affluent communities.

Populations served by drinking water systems with 90th percentile lead samples above 1 part per billion

Kristi Pullen Fedinick (NRDC)

In addition to many urban communities that have suffered from severe disinvestment in their infrastructure, disadvantaged rural and Tribal communities also are at serious risk. Families in these communities often must live every day with seriously contaminated water or no water at all, have lead service lines, and sometimes have raw sewage flowing in their streets or lack sanitation altogether. In many of these communities, democracy itself has been seriously undermined. In Flint, for example, state-appointed officials made the fateful ill-considered decisions that led to serious contamination, with residents and their elected local representatives effectively disenfranchised. 

The time has long since passed for us to make the investments to protect all of our health and our waterways. President Biden’s budget and American Jobs Plan will take a big step towards making those critical investments a reality.