Senators pass a bill to help clean up American waterways

More needs to be done, but this bill brings us one step closer to realizing the goal set by the Clean Water Act nearly 50 years ago.

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Laura Miller
Clean Water, Advocate

Author: Laura Miller

Clean Water, Advocate

Started on staff: 2020
Honors B.S., cum laude, University of Delaware

Laura leads Environment America's Safe for Swimming campaign, working to secure water infrastructure funding to decrease runoff and sewage overflow pollution. Laura previously worked on a statewide clean water campaign in Delaware and regional clean water campaigns in the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay Watersheds. Laura serves on the Board of Directors for the Delaware chapter of the American Water Resources Association. Laura is a Vermont native who enjoys hiking, traveling, and getting out on the waterways she works to protect.

Thirteen months of social distancing and isolation have many people looking forward to summer with a new appreciation. It will be a chance to get outside, see friends and family safely, and enjoy the rivers, lakes and beaches we love. As many Americans gear up for cooling off in their local waterways during the warm summer months, the U.S. Senate just approved legislation to help make our waterways safer for swimming.

For too long, beachgoers, kayakers and anglers across the country have been met with advisories warning them that the water is unsafe for swimming. Each year millions of Americans are sickened by swimming in contaminated water. Last year, our report Safe for Swimming? found that nearly one-in-every-eight surveyed beaches were potentially unsafe on at least 25 percent of days that sampling took place. Bacteria from fecal matter were the culprit.

(From Safe for Swimming 2020 Report: Average percentage of potentially unsafe beach days in 2019 by county)  

Two major sources of this bacteria are failing sewage systems and stormwater runoff pollution. All too often our outdated wastewater systems are overwhelmed, leading to discharges of human waste into nearby waterways. Making this problem worse is our sprawling overdevelopment and excessive use of pavement and other impervious surfaces. These choices take away nature’s ability to absorb and filter stormwater on its own.

Fortunately, we know the solutions. Fixing aging systems and leaky pipes, and launching projects that absorb stormwater -- like rain gardens and other nature-based infrastructure -- can dramatically reduce pollution to our waterways. These projects have the track record to back them up. Now all they need is financial support.

(Rain garden trapping and filtering stormwater from a parking lot in New Jersey, contributing to the cleaning of the Cooper River. Photo by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Unfortunately, federal funding for projects like these has been on the decline. The federal government’s investment in water and wastewater utilities declined from 63 percent in 1977 to just 9 percent in 2014. And this decrease comes at a time when states and municipalities are struggling more than ever to pay for updates to wastewater infrastructure -- which, nationwide, received a D+ grade this year by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

This is where the Senate bill comes into play. The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 would reauthorize federal programs that help states fund projects like these. That means programs will be better positioned to meet current needs thanks to a boost in clean water funding.

Like many long-awaited and much-needed policies, this bill didn’t materialize without help. Environment America and our allies at the Clean Water for All coalition have been building the case for these necessary historic investments for some time now. Our organization showcased the need for funding with reports such as Safe for Swimming?, and outlined the solutions that are at our fingertips to solve this problem with A Path to Cleaner Water. Additionally, we delivered proof to Congress of the public’s robust support for clean water. This includes a letter signed by more than 130 businesses and one from more than 360 local officials.

And while we celebrate the fact that this legislation passing the Senate sets us in the right direction, we acknowledge that the work isn’t over. Though this legislation boosts wastewater and stormwater infrastructure funding to more than $16 billion over five years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that our water infrastructure will require more than $271 billion over the next 20 years. To protect our waterways, we need greater federal funding with a reinstated 20 percent carve out for national and green infrastructure. Dedicated funding for green infrastructure will promote projects that restore nature’s ability to manage stormwater and reduce pollution naturally as an alternative to end of pipe projects.

We are already looking forward to new ways to not only highlight the work that still needs to be done but also shine a spotlight for the overwhelming public support for this action. After all, no matter who you are or where you live and recreate, everyone needs clean water.

Join us! Add your name to our message to Congress to make our waterways safe for swimming.

Cover photo: Kayakers along the Chicago Riverwalk, made cleaner thanks to water infrastructure improvements. Photo by Don Harder on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 

Laura Miller
Clean Water, Advocate

Author: Laura Miller

Clean Water, Advocate

Started on staff: 2020
Honors B.S., cum laude, University of Delaware

Laura leads Environment America's Safe for Swimming campaign, working to secure water infrastructure funding to decrease runoff and sewage overflow pollution. Laura previously worked on a statewide clean water campaign in Delaware and regional clean water campaigns in the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay Watersheds. Laura serves on the Board of Directors for the Delaware chapter of the American Water Resources Association. Laura is a Vermont native who enjoys hiking, traveling, and getting out on the waterways she works to protect.