For Local Leaders, the Water Bill in Congress is Urgent

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The residents of Flint, Michigan, have been unable to use their own taps for months – and now fears of Shigellosis make the need for congressional action more pressing than ever.

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Levee construction and flood prevention infrastructure are examples of projects included in versions of the Water Bill. (Getty Images)

The recent outbreaks of bacterial illness in Flint and other Michigan cities remind the American public and local leaders that Flint’s drinking water crisis is still very much an ongoing crisis. These outbreaks also drive home the fact that Congress needs to act soon to provide financial aid to the struggling city and its residents; to bring some relief to a crisis that has lasted too long and affected too many.

Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right, and local leaders need the resources to deliver, maintain and protect that promise. For months now, the people of Flint have been unable to use their own taps – and now fears of Shigellosis make the need for congressional action all the more urgent.

While the situation may seem dire, there is some good news on the horizon for those in Flint and for local leaders around the nation.

Over the past month, as Congress prepared to adjourn until after the elections, NLC celebrated small policy victories when both the House and the Senate passed versions of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that included provisions for Flint relief.

Attention now turns to the ‘to-be-determined’ WRDA conference committee that will try to hammer out differences between the two bills in time to send a final bill to the President’s desk before the end of the year — which is an absolute necessity.

In the House, disagreement over Flint aid was much stronger and became entangle with the negotiations for funding the federal government past Sept. 30 — the start of a new fiscal year. With NLC’s support, an eleventh hour agreement allowed for a Flint aid vote as an amendment to WRDA.

But, WRDA will provide much more than the relief for Flint. Both versions of the bill authorize restoration projects under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will improve infrastructure for flood protection, navigation, and ecosystem restoration. These projects are so important to communities and local leaders nationwide — from restoring the Florida Everglades to flood protection in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

For local elected officials, passage of a strong version of WRDA is a must. As Clarence Anthony, executive director and CEO of the National League of Cities stated, “Improved water infrastructure is essential to keeping our cities strong, our local economies vibrant and our residents healthy.”

Both bills also include funding to any state, such as Michigan, that receives an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water supply system. The Senate bill goes further, with additional provisions for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure such as funding for WIFIA; grants for lead service line replacement, testing, planning, corrosion control and education; grants to address sewer overflows and assist small and disadvantaged communities in complying with the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act; and addressing integrated planning and affordability issues.

Congress must pass WRDA for the sake of Flint, but also for the cities nationwide who are in need of these proposed water infrastructure projects. NLC has been calling for and continues to fight for a strong version of WRDA that not only does the most good for nation’s water infrastructure, but also restores a basic human right to the City of Flint.

We commend both chambers of Congress for bringing us this far. And with our ongoing efforts, we urge Congress to come to a swift conference compromise that puts cities first.

Carolyn BerndtAbout the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Program Director for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.