Opening Statement of Ranking Member Barbara Boxer

EPW Hearing on “The Federal Role in Keeping Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Affordable”

April 7, 2016

(Remarks as prepared for delivery)

Today we are here to discuss the federal role in supporting our nation’s water infrastructure. This is a timely hearing. The recent drinking water emergency in Flint, Michigan, has put a spotlight on our nation’s infrastructure challenges.  

Some people talk about federal mandates. Mandates based on science are critical. For example, yesterday we had a hearing on nuclear power plants. If we did not spend money on safety at these facilities, then we would have more problems like we did at Three Mile Island or Fukushima. Instead, we have laws that set standards and regulates these power plants. 

These minimum standards extend to our water infrastructure. I was proud to join with Senator Inhofe to say there was too much lead in drinking water, and we changed the requirement for lead in plumbing fixtures, based on science. 

Aging drinking water pipes and waste treatment systems are a nationwide problem. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our country’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure a “D”. This is unacceptable. 

The American people have a right to expect safe, clean water when they turn on their faucets.  Yet, millions of homes across America receive water from pipes that date to an era before scientists and public health professionals fully understood the harm caused by lead exposure. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates that approximately 7% of homes -- 15 to 22 million Americans -- have lead service lines. 

As parents in Flint know, there is no safe level of lead in children, and the effects of lead exposure are generally irreversible.  Lead harms the developing brains and nervous systems of children and fetuses.  The children poisoned in Flint will be dealing with the harmful consequences of this lead contamination for the rest of their lives. 

The lead poisoning of children in Flint shows why we need additional investments in our infrastructure systems to keep families safe from toxins such as lead in their drinking water. It also demonstrates that we still have a long way to go in providing safe, reliable drinking water to all Americans and to cleaning up the waterways that serve as sources of our drinking water. 

We also have cities across the U.S. with sewer systems that discharge raw, untreated sewage to waterways where children swim.  Despite enormous successes since the passage of the Clean Water Act to clean up waterways, there is much more to do. 

The tragedy in Flint was due in part to the decision to switch to the polluted and highly corrosive Flint River as a source of drinking water. But the Flint River is not alone in the harm it poses to local residents. Just last month, EPA released a report showing that nearly half of U.S. waterways are in poor condition. It also found 1 in 4 waterways have levels of bacteria that fail to meet human health standards. 

I know some testifying today have expressed concerns about the affordability of meeting standards for protecting public health and the environment. I understand these concerns, but I do not believe weakening public health protections is the right solution to this problem. 

To address affordability concerns and to meet drinking water and water quality standards, we need increased investment in our infrastructure and additional support for local communities as they work to come into compliance with public health and environmental laws. 

We should fund existing financing programs such as the State Revolving Funds and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) and update these programs to target investment where it is needed most.  

When we invest in water infrastructure, we support jobs and local economies. The Clean Water Council estimates that $1 billion invested in water and wastewater infrastructure can create up to 27,000 jobs. 

I believe there is broad bipartisan agreement on the need for federal investment in water infrastructure. The next Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which we are currently developing, gives us an opportunity to address our aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. 

The health and safety of children and families depends on modern infrastructure that provides safe drinking water and ensures clean rivers and streams. 

I look forward to hearing from each of our witnesses today.