Bipartisan federal infrastructure law ensures more Wisconsin families will have access to clean, safe water

Child drinking water.
, By Ezra Meyer

Last November, President Biden signed the Infrastructure and Jobs Act into law shortly after it passed through Congress with bipartisan support. The law makes a historic $1.2 trillion investment in every sector of our nation’s infrastructure, from roads, bridges, airports and railways to energy generation and transmission, electric vehicle charging stations, drinking water mains and wastewater treatment plants. It also directs federal resources to climate change resilience, cleaning up Superfund sites and other brownfields, environmental justice, and more. These investments will benefit Wisconsinites in countless ways, but it’s the funding for water infrastructure that could be the most crucial for families in our state.

For several years, Clean Wisconsin has advocated for a massive federal investment in the nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure. Starting in 2019, we have connected groups of Wisconsinites with Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation twice a year through our partnership with the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition and Milwaukee Water Commons. The need for a substantial increase in the federal government’s investment in our failing water infrastructure has been a top priority at those meetings. In fact, we held meetings with most of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation just days before the House vote on the Infrastructure Act in November. As part of the Healing Our Waters Coalition’s Fall 2021 Washington, D.C., fly-in (held virtually this year for pandemic reasons), we connected ten Wisconsinites from all around the state with Wisconsin’s eight Congressional representatives and two senators that week and urged the decision-makers to support our priorities for the Great Lakes region. Among those priorities, we advocated to get this law across the finish line. It was quite a victory for our participants when Congress voted on the law just hours after we had spoken to them about the importance of this substantial water infrastructure investment here in Wisconsin! 

There is no question this funding is badly needed. Since the late 1990s, the American Society of Civil Engineers has created a report card on the condition of our nation’s infrastructure, and overall scores have been in the D range ever since. For wastewater, drinking water, and the condition of our inland waterways, the grades have hovered in the D range. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the Great Lakes region alone will need $188 billion over the next 20 years to address aging and declining water infrastructure that collects and cleans up our sewage, provides clean, safe drinking water, and manages stormwater runoff to help avoid flooding and protect water quality in our lakes and rivers.

We were very pleased to see the passage of this package, which tackles head-on all of those deficient areas. We are excited for the positive benefits it will bring to communities in Wisconsin, in terms of safer drinking water and water quality improvement in our rivers and lakes, infrastructure reliability, and local economic stimulus.

Here are some examples of the specific water infrastructure funding provisions in the law nationwide (most of the law’s water-related infrastructure funding provisions last for the next five years):

  • $15 billion for lead drinking water pipe replacement
  • At least $11.7 billion and potentially up to $32 billion for drinking water infrastructure upgrades
  • $11.7 billion and potentially up to $34.5 billion for wastewater infrastructure upgrades
  • $10 billion to address emerging water contaminants of concern, such as PFAS

Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that our state could receive $869 million over the next five years for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure across the state. That includes between $30 million and $70 million for projects to address emerging contaminants such as PFAS and $255 million to replace lead water lines, both the publicly owned and private portions of such lines. 

Here are some examples of the beneficial impacts this unprecedented federal investment will have in Wisconsin:

  • Combined with Wisconsin’s existing program and policies designed to help water utilities and homeowners replace lead drinking water pipes, we should see substantial progress on that front across the state in the coming years, though we will not get 100% of the way there. A 2019 estimate indicated Milwaukee alone has roughly 70,000 homes still served by lead pipes, and there are another 149,000 across the state, requiring a total investment over $1 billion to replace all the lead service lines in Wisconsin.
  • Improved drinking water quality and more reliably safe drinking water for homes and businesses served by public water utilities.
  • Improved water quality in our lakes and rivers as a result of updating sewer collection and treatment systems.
  • Improved water quality in rivers and lakes, and reduced flooding impacts, thanks to additional investments in stormwater management infrastructure, in many cases using green infrastructure practices, which are further encouraged by the new law.
  • Investing in aging water infrastructure will help us to avoid some of the catastrophic problems that result when old infrastructure fails before it can be replaced or rehabilitated.
  • We could get a better handle on the scope of PFAS contamination facing Wisconsin thanks to the increased funding to help water utilities sample and test for emerging contaminants.
  • Even more beneficial projects around our Great Lakes coastlines and coastal communities will be enabled by the law’s additional investments in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Importantly, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes a requirement that the state agency programs that distribute most of these federal water infrastructure dollars to local communities and water utilities provide a much higher percentage of those funds in the form of grants rather than loans. Fully half of the drinking water, wastewater, and lead pipe replacement funds must be distributed by the states as grants rather than loans, and all of the emerging contaminants (PFAS) resources are to be distributed as grants. Grants are much more affordable than loans for poorer communities and their ratepayers. Indeed, some communities in Wisconsin are chronically underserved precisely because there has been very little federal grant money for water infrastructure projects in recent decades. We understand the EPA will be issuing specific guidance for the states on the use of these funds that will prioritize long underserved communities. Clean Wisconsin strongly supports this emphasis in the law.

As this historic law is implemented, we must shift our advocacy attention to the state level. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) administers the programs in our state for wastewater, drinking water, and lead pipe replacement. The Department makes key decisions each year as it sets the parameters of the programs that could bode better or worse for places like Milwaukee with its 70,000 homes still served by lead drinking water supply lines. Clean Wisconsin will watch those decision-making processes, make our voice heard, and let you know when there is an opportunity for you to make your voice heard as well.