WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) are calling for urgent federal action to protect water systems from climate change impacts in response to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today. The report, “Water Infrastructure and Climate Change Impacts,” documents the need for the federal government to work with states and local utilities to strengthen the resilience of water infrastructure to climate impacts. The report makes practical suggestions that we should implement immediately.
“Providing safe, clean water is one of government’s most fundamental roles and the faster we act to make our water infrastructure resilient to climate change impacts, the more we can reduce the risks and control the costs,” said Senator Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee. “This GAO report is the latest to show how our drinking water and wastewater treatment systems are at great risk from climate change impacts and that there is no better investment than protecting public health through our water infrastructure.”
“This report is a blaring warning of the consequences of neglecting climate resiliency planning,” said Senator Whitehouse, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Climate change threatens the drinking water, health, and quality of life for millions of Americans. We ought to invest more in planning ways to restore and strengthen the infrastructure that protects our drinking water and sewer systems.”
Senators Cardin and Whitehouse wrote to GAO in September 2017 requesting they study what is known about the effects of climate change on the nation’s water systems and the potential fiscal risks posed by those effects. They also sought an evaluation of federal actions that may be taken to reduce such risks.
An interactive graphic from the report of “the most relevant potential climate change impacts, and examples of potential effects on drinking water and wastewater utilities,” can be found here.
In October 2019, Senator Cardin introduced the Clean Water Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability Act (S.2636), which would expand federal assistance to waters systems across the country to increase their resiliency or adaptability to increasing natural hazards.
Four federal agencies provide technical and financial assistance to drinking and wastewater facilities: EPA, FEMA, HUD, and USDA. EPA is the lead under the federal planning process for managing risks and strengthening the security and resilience of crucial infrastructure against all hazards. EPA estimates that drinking water and wastewater utilities need to invest almost $744 billion to repair and replace their existing infrastructure over the next 20 years. GAO finds climate change is increasing these costs. From FY 2011-2018, the federal government provided at least $3.6 billion in disaster recovery financial assistance specifically for drinking and wastewater infrastructure related projects.
GAO reported that EPA provides technical assistance to drinking water and wastewater utilities to enhance their infrastructure’s resilience to climate change. According to EPA officials, the program does not have adequate capacity to assist utilities nationwide.
GAO finds that agencies do not consistently include consideration of climate resilience when funding water infrastructure projects. By identifying existing technical assistance providers and engaging them in a network to help utilities incorporate climate resilience into their infrastructure projects on an ongoing basis, EPA would have better assurance that climate information is exchanged effectively among federal agencies and utilities.
GAO suggests that federal agencies should require that climate information be considered in the planning of water infrastructure projects as a condition of providing financial assistance. Such a requirement could be an effective and feasible way to help enhance infrastructure resilience and limit future fiscal exposure.