WaterNow was honored to host U.S. Representative Jared Huffman in a virtual town hall conversation with our Executive Director, Cynthia Koehler, on August 24, covering the status of pending federal pandemic relief and stimulus bills, water equity, and water innovation. Mr. Huffman is a leading voice on water issues and Chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife. You can check out a recording of the event here or peruse highlights from the conversation below.
CK: Can you give us a high level overview of the stimulus and relief legislation currently on the table most relevant to supporting local water infrastructure needs?
JH: The HEROES Act, passed by the House, authorizes $3 trillion to address public health and economic needs related to the pandemic, including, critically, direct relief for state and local governments. We’re far from a deal and know we need to do more. The Moving Forward Act is an environment and surface transportation reauthorization bill that has also passed the House. It includes robust investments like the programs set out in the Drought FUTURE Act. It is significant in its ambitiousness considering how long we’ve been talking about funding for infrastructure. The Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) is the other big piece. It has passed out of the House and I’m optimistic about getting it past the finish line.
CK: What are your water priorities for a final stimulus?
JH: Normally I would say the opportunity to fund capital projects makes infrastructure packages most appealing, but right now some of the individual support on the table related to pandemic response is just as important, to enable customers to pay their bills. All of it is important right now.
CK: There has been discussion about a federal moratorium on water shutoffs for nonpayment which is certainly understandable given the economic challenges so many are facing. But some utilities have some reservations about this because they need resources to keep the water flowing. Do you see any likelihood for federal legislation providing support to cities, utilities and residents facing these challenges?
JH: Recognizing this and that people will have a hard time paying bills, yes, in the HEROES Act there is $1.5 billion included for cities for water ratepayer assistance, and $375 billion to be distributed to municipalities to pick up revenue shortfalls from the pandemic. The Moving Forward Act is where you see support for infrastructure, like $40 billion for wastewater, $25 billion for drinking water, and inclusion of the water conservation tax parity reform, which WaterNow members have been supporting for years. My view on a federal moratorium for shutoffs is that if we do this, someone has to pick up the slack. So it must be paired with support on the other side [i.e., for utilities].
CK: Are you seeing more of an appetite in Congress for addressing water equity issues head on in the current conversation?
JH: There’s a lot that we can do if we can get past things like the yearly water wars. It’s often about pitting farmers against fish, or using disadvantaged communities as props but not bringing them real solutions. If ever there’s a place that has acute environmental justice needs that are forgotten in water wars, it is the southern San Joaquin Valley. My Drought FUTURE Act includes a bill from Rep. TJ Cox to bring real solutions, including clean drinking water, to disadvantaged communities. It’s also important to include tribal set asides for tribal programs in these kinds of bills. These have shown up in pandemic response bills like the CARES Act.
From our virtual audience: Water and wildfires are a priority issue for those West of the Mississippi, but how do you get members of Congress from the more populated Eastern parts of the US engaged in these issues?
JH: I think we’re all in it together when it comes to climate change-related extreme weather events, whether a wildfire or derecho. The common exposure to extreme weather, and the need for resilience is how I am able to bring people together on water issues.
CK: The Drought FUTURE Act is a big priority for you. What do you see as the key benefits of this bill for local water utilities?
JH: This is a bill that should appeal to individual districts and regional commissions. We crowdsourced a lot of feedback from water managers in the West. This bill would clear the way for shovel ready water recycling projects, have multiple benefits for resilience and drought proofing, benefits for clean water, job creation, and take pressure off of fragile estuaries.
From our virtual audience: How do the water infrastructure bills help protect rivers and instream flows?
JH: By taking pressure off all these hammered ecosystems. Even from the most basic water delivery perspective, a lot of these far flung transmission and delivery systems are risky and unreliable in the age of climate change and extreme weather. If you can control your own destiny with local and regional water supplies, improve efficiency to knock down demand and not waste water, that is a far better response to this moment and takes pressure off the environment.
CK: You've been working to clarify that rebates for water infrastructure should not be taxed as income, and got this measure into at least one bill moving forward. What do you think about the prospects for this?
JH: These rebates are a really important tool for utilities, but the IRS threw us a curveball a few years ago with a ruling that said these are going to be treated as taxable income, which makes people less interested. You certainly don't want a rebate to be taxable to the customer. We’ve been trying to get this addressed for years, and now we have it attached to the Moving Forward Act, and have folks on Ways and Means who are aware and supportive of the fix we’re pushing. We’ve really raised the profile of this technical issue and feel we’re near the point of fixing it.
CK: Looking ahead, what are your priorities for the first 100 days of the next Presidential Inauguration?
JH: Since we passed the Moving Forward Act out of the House, I think that becomes the starting point for what we need to do going forward, which is bold. So my policy priority will be picking up with this bill. I think there will be a lot of support for the kind of infrastructure package we’ve already passed out of the House.
From our virtual audience: What are your thoughts on how local leaders can best engage with Congress on water infrastructure issues?
JH: In the pandemic, engagement has all gone virtual. When it’s safe to do so, joining an association fly-in event pushing these issues will be important if you want to get involved. But things like sign-on letters are even more important now because the traditional lines of communication are cut off. For example, water meetings typically held throughout the year that I’d expect to attend aren’t happening. Representatives want to hear from local leaders in their district and always take those meetings and calls.
Thanks to Congressman Huffman for his time and leadership on these key issues!
To take Representative Huffman’s advice and engage with your Members of Congress, use our Stimulus for Sustainability Toolkit. It includes free resources to voice support for stimulus funds that can expand water infrastructure in more sustainable ways.