Avoiding the mistakes of the Clean Water Act to ensure equity through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

By McKenna Vernon

On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) into effect.[1] This piece of legislation symbolized the administration’s commitment to investing in infrastructure that would promote economic, health, and environmental benefits throughout the country. The BIL targeted many environmental sectors, including public transportation, electric vehicles, clean energy, and water. Specifically, it promised that $50 billion would be delivered to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enhance the United States’ drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.[2] This sum would go towards providing safe drinking water by removing lead pipe systems, upgrading infrastructure that delivered treated water to surface water sites, and protecting regional waters, and has been regarded as “the single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made”.[3]

Taking these goals into account, it’s easy to see how a connection can be drawn between the water objectives of the BIL and the goals of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Clean Water Act was enacted with the purpose of making all waters swimmable and fishable by 1983.[4] The BIL similarly aims to ensure clean water for communities by delivering at least $12 billion for people to be able to swim, fish, and play in their waters and a cleaner, more vibrant environment.[5] While the BIL addresses this goal by targeting water infrastructure and the CWA targets point source pollution, their ideal end goals are very similar.

Because of this similarity, both laws also face the challenge of maintaining environmental justice while enforcing their missions. Since its implementation, much attention has been brought to the Clean Water Act’s equity concerns. To ensure that bodies of water are compliant with the CWA, state governments conduct routine monitoring of the water’s quality and condition. However, the broad expanse of water systems in various states makes it likely that some end up unmonitored. Usually, nearby neighborhoods would alert their officials to resolve this issue, but many community members do not have the time to fight for these changes while maintaining their other responsibilities. This limitation especially pertains to lower income families and families of color, as a study found that state agencies conduct inspections in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods less frequently than others.[6] Similarly, it has been shown that tribal lands commonly experience less enforcement of environmental regulations (such as CWA regulations), and in turn see more violations of the national standards than other lands.[7] These findings show that minority communities face an increased possibility of exposure to contaminated waters and are less likely to be able to confront this inequity.

To ensure that the BIL addresses equity concerns, funding must be set aside for the specific purpose of impact monitoring in communities. This law is still relatively new, meaning that the long term impacts of its established infrastructure have yet to be assessed. It’s crucial that the effects of new water infrastructure be tracked to ensure that the funds are used to make a legitimate difference. The best way to address the monitoring gap in disadvantaged communities is to provide funding specifically meant to promote consistent and thorough environmental observation.

Additionally, the EPA should encourage those who receive this funding to engage in conversation with local community members so that the funded action has a maximized impact. In Dubuque, IA, nearly $75 billion of flood damage costs have been incurred since 1988 due to increased frequency and intensity of storms. The Bee Branch Watershed Flood Mitigation Project, informed by community input, was then designed to address flooding and water quality in the area. City leaders stated that the project delays caused by taking time to gain public input were worth it because community members knew the needs of the city best, owned the properties whose values would be affected, and the most vulnerable communities were able to share concerns. This project then prevented $11.5 million in property damage from a 2017 storm, proving this strategy to be a success.[8]

Unlike a lot of past legislation, environmental justice is woven into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Through President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which holds the objective of diverting 40% of benefits related to federal investments to disadvantaged communities[9], the BIL has pushed half of federal clean water infrastructure funding[10] towards vulnerable populations. While it is too soon to collect data to quantify the impact, these investments are predicted to significantly reduce lead, nutrient, and PFAS levels in these waters[11], improving community health and value. To make sure that these desired effects are achieved, there must be a commitment to long term observation, which will be aided by direct funding. Similarly, various local and state projects demonstrate the benefits of promoting community engagement.[12] With intentional investments and local input, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be better suited to help the United States’ communities in an equitable and consistent way.

[1] USDA. (n.d.). FACT SHEET: Year Two of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law at USDA. U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2023/11/15/fact-sheet-year-two-bipartisan-infrastructure-law-usda#:~:text=%E2%80%9CThe%20Bipartisan%20Infrastructure%20Law%20is,and%20better%20able%20to%20compete.%E2%80%9D

[2] Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Water Infrastructure Investments. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. https://www.epa.gov/infrastructure/water-infrastructure-investments

[3] Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Water Infrastructure

[4] Albright, Elizabeth. (2024). Lecture 10: Clean Water Act

[5] Environmental Protection Agency. (2021). Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: A Historic Investment in Water. EPA.

[6] Konisky, D. M., Reenock, C., & Conley, S. (2021). Environmental injustice in Clean Water Act Enforcement: racial and income disparities in inspection time. Environmental Research Letters, 16(8), 084020. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ac1225

[7] Teodoro, M. P., Haider, M., & Switzer, D. (2016). U.S. Environmental Policy Implementation on Tribal Lands: Trust, Neglect, and Justice. Policy Studies Journal, 46(1), 37–59. https://doi.org/10.1111/psj.12187

[8] THE UNITED STATES CONFERENCE OF MAYORS. (2022, January). Cities Advancing Climate Action: Leveraging Federal Funds for Local Impact A Resource Guide.

[9] The United States Government. (n.d.). Justice40: A Whole-of-Government Initiative. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/environmentaljustice/justice40/

[10] The United States Government. (2024, February 20). FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration announces nearly $6 billion for clean drinking water and wastewater infrastructure as part of investing in america tour. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2024/02/20/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-announces-nearly-6-billion-for-clean-drinking-water-and-wastewater-infrastructure-as-part-of-investing-in-america-tour/#:~:text=Through%20the%20Bipartisan%20Infrastructure%20Law,thousands%20of%20lead%20service%20lines.

[11] Fox, R. (2022, May 27). Memorandum: Implementation of the Tribal Water Infrastructure Appropriations in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Washington, D.C.; Environmental Protection Agency.


One thought on “Avoiding the mistakes of the Clean Water Act to ensure equity through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

  1. This is a fantastic blog, and ensuring that funding is going to communities that have been unjustly exposed to contaminants and flooding will continue to be of growing importance with increased flooding from climate change and contaminated runoff from increased urbanization. I especially like the mention of the Bee Branch Project here. It’s a great example of how intentional and federally funded local policy can have tremendous environmental, public health, and economic benefits. I think the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s allocation of funding to Justice40 communities is going to be an effective first step to not only correcting existing environmental problems but also in promoting resiliency in those communities against future hazards. It will be interesting to see over the next few years where within water infrastructure that federal funding is prioritized between stormwater and flood projects, point source pollutant remediation, water line upgrades, wastewater improvements, or other water supply security measures. With so much falling under the BIL and a focus on Justice40 communities, I wonder how projects will be prioritized (e.g. whether by number of people impacted or likelihood of success) and what the efficiency and equity tradeoffs will be within that decision making. Nonetheless, I think you have pointed out the great potential that BIL has to fill in holes of the CWA!

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