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Use Federal $$$ to Fix Texans’ Water Systems

Like most Texans, I’ll never forget what it was like living without water for days on end during last year’s Winter Storm Uri. There was an edge of genuine peril as I carefully boiled and filtered snow for my husband and I to drink so we could hang on to every last drop of our limited bottled water supply for our young children. We felt dirty, desperate, and vulnerable. It was a haunting experience and opened our eyes to the unsettling state of water infrastructure in Texas.

Fragile Texas water systems endanger every Texan. We saw as much during the winter storm, which left more than half the state without water for days. Some outages lingered well into the spring.

Starting this year, Texas has an important opportunity to fix some of its biggest water problems.

Over the next five years, the state is on tap to receive $2.9 billion for a wide variety of water system improvements across Texas through the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill that Congress passed in 2021.The bill also offers billions more for pollution reduction and mitigation, flooding infrastructure and resilience, the remediation and replacement of lead-lined water pipes, and other specific needs.

This funding will not solve all of the state’s water issues — Texas needs $80 billion simply to implement the projects in the State Water Plan. But it represents a good and important down payment.

Texas leaders need to capture all of the funding they can and use it to support community-level grants, innovation, resilience, equity efforts and projects that address the state’s most immediate water issues.

By drawing down every possible dollar, Texas leaders will create a foundation for future investment in the water systems that communities need to survive and thrive. They also will fortify the state’s economy, which depends on a reliable water supply.

TOP 3 Facts about Texas’ New Water Infrastructure Funding:

  1. Texas needs this money. The state’s drinking water infrastructure was given a C-minus — and its wastewater infrastructure got a D — in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Severe weather events like Winter Storm Uri are only becoming more common, making investments in resilience even more important.
  2. The money can pay for a wide variety of projects, detailed here and here, running the gamut from treatment plants to better water pipes to pollution reduction to conservation, efficiency, and reuse.
  3. The money must be used to help underserved communities. The  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, which administers most of the water infrastructure funding) is urging states to prioritize historically underserved communities and offering “technical assistance to help disadvantaged communities overcome barriers in applying for and receiving loans and grants.”

Other Key Points:

  • The $2.9 billion will flow via the EPA into state revolving funds (SRF) that pay for wastewater, reuse, stormwater, and general water infrastructure projects. In 2022 alone, the state is in line to receive more than $500 million for SRF programs.
  • Nearly half of this money — 49% — will be administered as grants and forgivable loans. That’s a far larger percentage than past funding initiatives, which especially helps water utilities that have struggled with pandemic-related budget constraints.
  • The state has to match 10% of this money to access it in 2022 and 2023, a reduction from the usual 20% match requirement, in an effort to ease the burden on states to access these funds.
  • The Texas Water Development Board is charged with facilitating the SRF programs and will administer the funding. The Board should ensure that communities — including community groups and non-profits — are aware of these funding opportunities, and it should partner with them and the EPA to support eligible projects that advance sustainable solutions.
  • Local communities will need support for vital pre-planning and technical assistance, which will help them develop sustainable and resilient projects that help solve local problems.

Texas is a great state. To remain so well into the future, Texas needs water. Water allows Texas to grow, sustains Texans’ health, and preserves natural resources that fuel local economies and define the state’s culture and character.

Virtually every Texas community feels the effects of decades of under-investment in water infrastructure. For many of us, the rude awakening provided by Uri won’t be the last. Now is the time to act. Our future depends on a new approach to water, and this vital funding is our chance to begin charting that future.

Amanda Fuller
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