4 Water Utility Takeaways from the American Jobs Plan

April 6, 2021

Water utility managers and their community partners discussed the American Jobs Plan with EPA Director Michael Regan in a roundtable discussion

Water utility managers and their community partners discussed the American Jobs Plan with EPA Director Michael Regan in a roundtable discussion

U.S. EPA Director Michael Regan hosted a roundtable discussion with utilities and their community partners from around the country to discuss the water and wastewater elements of the American Jobs Plan April 5.

This American Jobs Plan is a $2 trillion proposal from President Joe Biden, which includes $111 billion in funding for water and wastewater programs in the U.S. The plan has received unanimous support from industry associations such as the Water Environment Federation, American Water Works Association, the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

In remarks regarding the round table, Regan said funding for water and wastewater systems is long overdue, and that federal partnership is vital.

“Local leaders across the nation are struggling with the challenges of doing more with less while maintaining vital water services. They are working tirelessly on novel solutions to meet the water needs of their communities,” Regan said. “Today’s discussion highlighted that local leaders need a stronger federal partner when it comes to water infrastructure. The American Jobs Plan would do just that while providing the resources that communities desperately need to deliver essential water service for all.”

The roundtable discussion featured comments from 13 municipal and utility leaders from across the country and six community partners. The water and wastewater professionals each had a moment to share their thoughts and also passed along their time to their community partners to share their thoughts and vision for the proposed funding. Below are four key takeaways from the roundtable.

1. Equitable & Affordable Practices

The second and third most common terms used by utility leaders during the round table were equity and affordability. Water equity and water affordability have been terms of great importance to the one water movement championed by the US Water Alliance, the former CEO of which is now Acting Assistant Administrator of the EPA Radhika Fox. It is clear from the round table that her influence has impacted the language and messages discussed by utility leaders and their partners.

Jim Lochhead, CEO for Denver Water, said communicating with low-income communities and communities of color has been a large aspect of his current mission. Doing so ensures Denver Water can gain trust by making and fulfilling promises.

“We cannot be successful without the community,” he said.

Co-Executive Director of Milwaukee Water Commons Brenda Coley said funding sources in the American Jobs Plan should require diversity elements.

“Water infrastructure investment should require recipients to track and report diversity,” she said, adding such requirements would ensure workforce equity in addition to equitable outcomes for the finished projects.

On a similar note, Louisville Metropolitan Sewerage District Executive Director Tony Parrott also noted that the infrastructure funding in water must be framed with equity in mind.

“As we roll out the President’s plan, we really need to do it with an equity lens,” Parrot said. “We must make sure it supports inclusion for minority-owned, women-owned businesses.”

Community partner Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League shared in the sentiment of those on the call. She said while it is important to ensure equitable outcomes, equity should also be top of mind during hiring, contracting, bidding and project execution.

2. Hiring & Job Creation

One of the most critical challenges facing the industry at large is a shortage of qualified workers. Trade work across all sectors has been difficult to find as U.S. society charges its youth with attending college and attending higher learning institutions. But for water and wastewater systems, opportunity is abundant for those who would prefer not to take that route. Comments from roundtable guests noted how the American Jobs Plan could be a means to accelerate hiring for the next generation of workers.

Mami Hara, general manager and CEO for Seattle Public Utilities, said 34% of her job pool is set to retire in the next few years. Money like that proposed in the infrastructure bill, she said, is “pivotal and critical” for public outreach and education programs to fill those inevitable vacancies.

Lochhead shared a similar experience. In 2020, Denver Water’s lead service line replacement program replaced 5,200 lines. Because of the volume of work, he noted it also resulted in 300 job opportunities.

Corey Braxton, superintendent of small communities for the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, said the money from the American Jobs Plan would be crucial for hiring and education programs. He noted HRSD has an apprenticeship program, and funding allocated in the infrastructure plan would ensure longevity of this program while also meeting equitable hiring goals.

3. Sustainable & Long-term Funding

High on the priority list of the comments raised by utility leaders and their partners was that funding must be sustainable over the long term. While an injection like that of the American Jobs Plan is important for water and wastewater workers, ensuring programs are funded far into the future is also vital.

Cathy Bailey is the executive director for the Greater Cincinnati Water Works. She noted that infrastructure funding has required some creative solutions for her and her city. One of those options, she said, was to apply cell tower revenue to improvements in community infrastructure.

"This funding would be a game changer, certainly for Cincinnati,” Bailey said.

Ted Henifin, general manager for Hampton Roads Sanitation District, played on this point as well. He said the industry needs to get away from a reliance on grants and loans, as sustainable, long-term investments will produce the best outcomes for all. Grants have their place and should be part of the plan, but he noted over-reliance on them creates a framework of competition rather than solidarity.

4. Resilience & Climate Change

“Climate change is real, and so are the challenges to supply a population with resilient infrastructure,” said Yvonne Forrest, director of Houston Public Works.

Forrest described the hardships that Houston has faced due to extreme weather events in the past five years. Hurricane Harvey was the wettest cyclone on record for the continental U.S. and communities are still recovering from the effects more than three years later. And just earlier this year, Houston also suffered devastation at the hands of Winter Storm Uri, which stressed the electrical grid beyond its breaking point and resulted in millions of Texas going without water for weeks.

Kristen Schlemmer, legal director for Bayou City Waterkeeper, represented Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience (CEER) Houston on the call. She said storms like those Houston experienced affect low-income communities and families of color the most. It poses tremendous obstacles for their personal, financial and familial recovery from the storms, not the least of which includes access to clean water and working sewer systems.


Concluding Remarks

After nearly 50 minutes of conversation from water industry leaders, Regan provided some closing remarks before answering questions.

“You guys have been at this for a long time,” Regan said. “It’s been your voices and your advocacy that has resulted in this vision of the American Jobs Plan.”

He also noted that with Fox at the helm, he has high expectations that he is certain she will meet. She is, he said, “the perfect person for this job at this moment.” 

Fielding questions from the media, Politico’s Annie Snider asked how the infrastructure plan will work with regulatory initiatives, most notably that of the Lead & Copper Rule Revision. Regan said the regulatory framework on the table works hand-in-hand with the funding goals in the American Jobs Plan. With increased regulation expected from the LCRR, increased funding is vital. In this way, he said both pieces complement each other.

Hannah Northey, Politico’s E&E news reporter, asked about the impact of grants versus loans in the plan. Fox said feedback is the guiding force behind which avenues to pursue.

“We’re really eager to hear from water utilities and community leaders about the challenges and if they may be inadequately able to access both our grant and loan programs,” she said.

WWD’s Senior Managing Editor Bob Crossen asked about wastewater, storm water and clean water, given much of the attention of the plan is focused on lead removal and lead service line replacement.

“There’s $56 billion proposed as part of the water component of the American Jobs Plan and a good portion of that would be directed to Clean Water SRF,” Fox said.

Final words from EPA Director Regan provided additional encouragement about the future of water and wastewater infrastructure in the U.S.

“It’s been too long since you had your day in the sun,” Regan said.