POLITICO Pro Q&A: Sen. Alex Padilla

By Annie Snider

The United States is juggling multiple — sometimes competing — goals when it comes to providing clean, safe and affordable drinking water to Americans, but California Sen. Alex Padilla sees a path forward to meeting all of these goals.

The Biden administration is churning out strict new regulations to limit toxic contaminants. Entrenched drought has water managers in the West grasping for solutions. And aging systems require expensive upgrades just to continue functioning. All while a pandemic-era program to help low-income customers pay their water bills expired at the end of March.

“This is a hugely pivotal moment in the history of water in the United States,” he said during a recent sit-down with POLITICO.

The Democrat has staked out a focus on water affordability since taking the gavel of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Fisheries, Water and Wildlife subpanel last year. He’s pushing legislation to renew the low-income assistance program, expressing hope it could pass on a bipartisan basis after the heat of election season subsides.

Padilla is also beginning to build the case for a major federal investment in Western water, as negotiators along the Colorado River struggle to craft new rules to govern the waterway into the coming, drier years.

So far, those negotiations aren’t going well, with upstream and downstream states sharply divided on how to allocate the necessary cuts in water use. Padilla — whose home state holds the largest and most powerful congressional delegation along the river — said he expects the dual threat of litigation and legislation to drive the parties together, but warned that “we always hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The water sector is contending with a lot right now. You’ve got big new regulations out of the Biden administration, water scarcity challenges across the West, and just the expense of operating aging systems around the country. Is it going to be possible to face all of this and keep water affordable?

Failure is not an option. What can be more fundamental to an individual’s needs, to a family’s needs, to our economy’s needs than a reliable source of clean, safe and affordable, drinking water?

When you talk to water utility heads, most will acknowledge that water rates have to go up. But at the same time, they know that many of their customers can’t afford their bills as they stand now. During the pandemic, Congress approved a program to provide assistance for water bills to low-income families, but that program expired at the end of March. You have a bill that would make it permanent. Do you see a path forward for it?

I do. Bipartisan support is sometimes hard to come by in Congress but I am hopeful because of the sheer need that exists throughout the country. Access to clean, safe drinking water is not a partisan issue. The initial pilot program was approved on a bipartisan basis. So there’s a track record and vote history we can remind our colleagues of.

Do you have any Republicans committed at this point?

We’re still working on those. From one Congress to the next things can change. And we have the politics of a presidential election here. So when in some quarters we’re hearing cuts, cuts, cuts, it may not be quite right today, but I do believe in the near future, the political climate will allow Republicans to publicly come on board, and I know from private conversations that people understand [the need].

The election is months away and the program has already expired. How dire is the situation now? Are we looking at a scenario where we’re going to start seeing a wave of shut-off notices?

Well, I certainly hope not. We’re working with all stakeholders to try to continue to provide the temporary relief and accommodation for families who may be in the toughest situations.

The breakthrough may not come today or this week, but I do think it’s going to be in the near future. A series of appropriations bills, for example, won’t be until the end of the fiscal year. Or maybe we can have the bill we’ve introduced go alone or as part of a larger package. We’re constantly looking for that next opportunity to get this closer to the finish line.

One of the things driving potential rate increases is big new regulations coming online. The Biden administration recently set stringent new drinking water limits for PFAS that the agency itself acknowledges will cost $1.5 billion every year for the foreseeable future. The regulation is already getting some pushback, including from Republicans who pushed EPA to do a drinking water regulation in the first place. Do you think that this really stringent approach will be workable and durable in the long run?

I do believe so. I start with the premise of, does everybody deserve safe drinking water? The answer is yes. And thanks to science, we are able to identify more contaminants and at what levels they pose higher risks for individuals, young and old. Because there’s a whole other discussion about thresholds for adults and for children.

We know that we need to do a better job of keeping PFAS from entering into the drinking water supply. That’s not really the question. The question is then how do we comply? And we get back to this cost question: How much can individual ratepayers, aka families, truly absorb individually? What utilities can absorb? And what the role and responsibility is of the federal government to participate in that.

The other regulation around PFAS is the Superfund designation. Many people see that as important for being able to hold polluters accountable, but water utilities are worried that they could end up getting pulled into litigation as a result of it. Would you support a legislative exemption for them?

If necessary. We’re still working with the administration on administrative ways to achieve that. Water utilities want to be partners in all this. But we can’t let polluters off the hook.

Another huge challenge facing the sector is water scarcity and climate change-driven drought. Along the Colorado River, many water managers now think it will be necessary to augment supplies through things like desalination. But this is hugely expensive as well. Are you starting to strategize about how you could bring federal funding to bear on some of these Western water scarcity challenges?

Absolutely. I think we can make a lot of progress in the near-term just through the sharing of best practices, including the tough decisions that we made 20 years ago to address water shortages in California.

Forty million people rely on the Colorado River for their drinking water. Half of them live in California. And with our changing climate, we have to be able to do more with less.

Is there a role for desalinization? Yeah, probably long-term. There’s different technologies, but they’re costly. They’re energy intensive. So, they’re not the magic wand, in the near-term. It’s going to be a combination of these strategies, and these tools that will help us accommodate a growing population and a growing economy with decreasing water supply.

Do you think that the cost of whatever that portfolio of strategies is can be borne by ratepayers in the region alone, or is there going to have to be federal funding?

Federal funding is certainly more than appropriate here. You look at not just the population centers in the West, but at the economic contributors that the Western United States represents. The largest contributor to the federal Treasury is the state of California. When there’s a horrific earthquake or tornado in one part of the country, we’re all there to support those communities. When there’s an earthquake or a wildfire in other parts of the country, we’re all there to assist those communities in response. And I think the drought is no different.

The negotiations among the states over rules to govern the Colorado River after the current ones expire in 2026 are not going well. There’s hope among all the players that things will turn around soon, but if it doesn’t, are you starting to think about what you could do from here on Capitol Hill to change things? California, in terms of congressional delegations, is the 800-pound gorilla.

I don’t assume that our first option is to introduce a piece of legislation and sort of dictate what the solutions are. Is that theoretically one of the potential routes? Maybe. But we also don’t want to end up in courts and having judges making these determinations. I think those two threats are, frankly, the biggest motivator for the negotiators to realize that they have to reach some sort of a consensus. Whatever tension there may be right now seems to be part of the process.

One of the things that we will continue to do here is keep convening senators from California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming. Bringing that good influence to the negotiation process has been helpful in recent years. And frankly, I think the existence of that informal table is what led to line items being included in the Inflation Reduction Act. That helped us address some of those short-term challenges.

You mentioned the idea of the threat of litigation or the threat of legislation. Is a threat called for? Are you thinking about what a threat from the lower basin could look like?

We always hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Litigation will always be on people’s mind, and so you sort of keep that in the back of your mind. But the better way to approach it is in a much more collaborative fashion, which is what has happened, time and time again and, I suspect that this time will be no different.

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