US water sector gets $111bn boost amid health and capacity crisis

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Biden’s plan to replace lead pipes faces huge complexity challenge.

The scale of the challenges faced by the American water sector is under renewed scrutiny as president Biden plans $111bn of funding to modernise it.

The USA has 52,000 community water systems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of these, 84% are owned as local municipal systems along with 98% of the 16,000 wastewater systems. This means that there are a lot of small systems with small operators that lack large-scale experience or resource for delivering big projects.

The highly fragmented nature of the USA’s water systems is part of the reason why lead piping is still widespread in some areas of America – with up to 22 million Americans drinking water with lead in it in from their domestic taps decades after it was removed almost entirely from many developed nations. Lead piping has major health implications for America’s children, slowing their development and causing learning, behaviour and hearing problems. It also damages children’s brains and kidneys long term and there is no safe level of exposure.

To rectify this historic infrastructure challenge, the president has set out plans for $45bn to replace all lead piping across the country to end exposure in people’s homes and at 400,000 affected schools and childcare facilities. Part of the money will be allocated through the EPA’s drinking water fund and part of it through infrastructure improvement grants.

Health is not the only focus for infrastructure spending in the water sector. The president has also announced that $56bn will be made available in grants and low-cost flexible loans to modernise America’s drinking and wastewater systems, stormwater infrastructure and clean water infrastructure in rural areas.

Much of this funding will be used to upscale existing projects that are having some success across the country, though there will also be a further $10bn in funding to monitor and remediate PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water and to invest in rural small water systems and household well and wastewater systems – including drainage fields.

Because the aim of much of this spending is specific – concerns have been raised that the funding may not prove sufficient on its own and that wider partners may be needed. The American Water Works Association, a not-for-profit association in the USA, warned: “Assistance from federal partners and many others is critical given the scope of the lead service line replacement challenge, which could exceed $60bn.”

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, however, was more positive, saying: “The federal cost-share of providing clean and drinking water services is now shockingly below five percent. President Biden’s plan will help reverse this decline and aid clean water agencies across the country invest in critical infrastructure projects, advanced technologies, and greater water quality protection.”