E&E Daily: Senate Dems to agencies: Get in alignment on drinking water

By Jennifer Yachnin

Senate Democrats kicked off an effort Wednesday to align agencies charged with ensuring safe drinking water access to communities.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resource Subcommittee on Water and Power, announced the effort during a hearing emphasizing the need for more data on drinking water access, which he said affects more than 2 million Americans.

“There isn’t a central agency that even has data on all aspects of water access,” Wyden said.

He noted that responsibilities for water quality, quantity and affordability are often split among across federal, state and local offices.

“It is hard to believe that in 2023, our country doesn’t even have some basic facts about the key issues like who has indoor plumbing in America that actually works,” he said. “We’ve got to get practical data on the scope of the problem.”

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife, chaired by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), will take also part in the effort.

Wyden said the panels have asked EPA and the Agriculture and Interior departments to “measure what matters and come up with these basic facts.”

That information will be used to direct the use of $550 million already authorized by the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act for “drinking water systems for disadvantaged communities.”

Michael Brain, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science, told Wyden that the Bureau of Reclamation and Indian Health Services are already collaborating on planning related projects.

“We’re still talking to stakeholders, talking to tribes and various venues to make sure that we’re using the funds in a method that can be helpful to communities,” Brain said.

Jonathan Smith, chair of the Tribal Council of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon, told the subcommittee that it would help to have a single set of standards for federal agencies that are delivering cash for water infrastructure funding.

“With all the different people in charge, it’d be good to get them all on the same page and try to have a uniform guidance,” Smith said. “When you’re trying to meet one kind of opportunity with different guidelines than the other, it’s kind of hard to match them all up.”

An Environment and Public Works subcommittee also held a session Tuesday to address drinking and waste water infrastructure in tribal communities.

“This is an often overlooked and underfunded area with serious impacts on the health and well-being of countless Native American communities,” Padilla said.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will take up drinking water infrastructure next week, Padilla said.

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