Congressman Peter A. DeFazio has represented Oregon’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1986. He has served as the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure since 2019 and before that had been its ranking member since 2015. In this interview, Chair DeFazio tells Municipal Water Leader about his commitment to federal funding for smarter, safer, greener, and more resilient infrastructure and explains the importance of the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act, which he recently reintroduced.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about yourself and your role in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
Congressman DeFazio: I have been an active member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee since arriving in Congress. In 2018, I was honored to be elected by my colleagues to serve as the chair of the committee after serving as ranking member since 2015. Additionally, during my time on the committee, I have served as chair or ranking member of four of the six subcommittees. As chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I am committed to moving our country beyond the outdated systems of the Eisenhower era and investing in infrastructure that is smarter, safer, greener, and made to last.
Municipal Water Leader: Would you describe the connection between water infrastructure and the economy?
Congressman DeFazio: Investing in America’s water infrastructure means investing in communities and creating jobs. According to the National Utility Contractors Association, for every $1 billion invested in our water infrastructure, an estimated 28,000 jobs are created or sustained. Unfortunately, the federal government has failed for decades to be a good partner when it comes to addressing state and local wastewater needs. I’m pushing hard to change that. I recently reintroduced the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act, which would provide $50 billion over the next 5 years to address America’s crumbling wastewater infrastructure and local water quality challenges, including billions of dollars for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) loan program. The Clean Water SRF is the primary source of federal assistance for wastewater infrastructure construction. Through increased federal investment in wastewater infrastructure, we can create tens of thousands of well-paying jobs in the construction and wastewater sectors that will help communities and families across the country. This couldn’t be more timely or more needed.
Municipal Water Leader: You mentioned that you recently reintroduced the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act. Would you expand on why this legislation is important and how it would help address water-related infrastructure needs across the country?
Congressman DeFazio: My bipartisan legislation, which I introduced with Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA), the chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, and Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), would not only make badly needed investments in America’s crumbling water infrastructure and help clean up local rivers, it would also create well-paying jobs. Our legislation would specifically authorize $40 billion over 5 years in wastewater infrastructure investments through the Clean Water SRF, which provides low-interest loans, loan subsidies, and grants to communities for wastewater infrastructure. It would also provide an additional $10 billion of additional federal grant assistance to improve water quality and to help communities that need help making expensive upgrades to their wastewater infrastructure. This legislation would reduce the cost of constructing and maintaining that infrastructure, accelerate efforts to increase the resiliency of wastewater infrastructure, promote energy efficiency and water efficiency, and reduce the potential long-term operation and maintenance costs of publicly owned treatment works. That is why this bipartisan bill has earned support from a broad coalition, including municipalities, environmental organizations, labor unions, small businesses, and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the main water and wastewater infrastructure needs for 2021, and what are your priorities for this year?
Congressman DeFazio: As we work to build back better and lay a foundation for our long-term economic recovery from the COVID‑19 pandemic, investing in our water and wastewater systems will play an important part. As for my priorities, a top one for any infrastructure bill must be reauthorizing the Clean Water SRF, something Congress hasn’t done since 1987. This will go a long way in helping to address the backlog of water infrastructure projects and help communities ensure the affordability of wastewater service to households, especially those that may have difficulty making ends meet. In addition, we must also work to ensure that our water infrastructure is as green as possible and is resilient to our changing climate. That is why we also must also look to natural or nature-based approaches to addressing local water quality challenges, something that we did in the Moving Forward Act and the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 and that I plan to do again in a transformative infrastructure bill.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the discrepancy between current federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure and the needed level of federal funding?
Congressman DeFazio: Just as we need to invest in our roads and bridges, we need federal investment in water and wastewater infrastructure. According to the most recent EPA Clean Water Needs Survey, states have documented a need for $271 billion in investment over the next 20 years—that’s almost $14 billion needed annually for wastewater infrastructure. And it is likely that this estimate, which is now almost a decade old, significantly underestimates the actual need. Some in Congress say current federal investment levels are fine, but if we continue to fund wastewater infrastructure at the current level of $1.6 billion per year, it would take us almost 170 years just to address existing wastewater infrastructure needs, and that doesn’t include investments to address the challenges posed by climate change, extreme weather events, and the resilience of our water utilities. That is ridiculous, and that is why both my Clean Water SRF reauthorization bill and the Moving Forward Act included $40 billion in federal SRF investment to help address the backlog of clean water needs. It also established minimum allocations for rural and small communities for water infrastructure investment. I am committed to being a partner for rural and urban communities alike that are working to ensure clean, safe, and reliable water services to their residents.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the best way for the federal government to partner with state and local governments in making infrastructure investments?
Congressman DeFazio: States and cities need a strong federal partner to invest in their communities. As local wastewater and water infrastructure needs continue to grow, the federal government must step up to provide that extra support. That’s why I have led the drive in Congress to increase federal funding for the Clean Water SRF loan program. However, not all communities can bear the same financial burden in addressing the backlog of clean water infrastructure needs, which is why my bill requires that a greater portion of federal assistance be distributed as grants—especially to economically disadvantaged communities that struggle to afford necessary clean water upgrades. The quality of your water should not be dependent on your zip code or the economic health of your community.
Municipal Water Leader: The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was successful in passing WRDA 2020 as part of the omnibus. How does WRDA 2020 set up additional action on water infrastructure in 2021?
Congressman DeFazio: The Water Resources Development Act—which the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has developed and passed on a bipartisan and biennial basis since 2014—is critical to all 50 states, to territories, and to tribal communities and includes key provisions to invest in our ports, harbors, and inland waterways; to build more resilient communities; and to ensure that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carries out projects in an economically and environmentally responsible manner. WRDA 2020 sets up additional action on water infrastructure by authorizing the study and construction of locally driven projects that have been developed in cooperation and consultation with the Army Corps, and it does so with an eye toward equity and resiliency. As we prepare for WRDA 2022, my committee will be watching closely to ensure that WRDA 2020 is fully implemented as Congress intended.
Municipal Water Leader: Is the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee addressing issues like the contamination of water supplies by per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and endocrine-disrupting chemicals?
Congressman DeFazio: While not all water issues are under my committee’s jurisdiction, the Moving Forward Act would have helped prevent the discharge of industrial chemicals into our wastewater systems and surface waters and put $1 billion in new federal assistance toward helping communities address ongoing contamination of waterways by PFAS, sometimes known as forever chemicals. Clean, safe, and reliable water is a basic human right, and we should all fight against efforts to weaken protections on that resource.
Municipal Water Leader: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Congressman DeFazio: I’d reiterate what I said at the beginning, which is that I am committed to passing transformational legislation that can finally move our country’s infrastructure out of the 1950s, create millions of well-paying jobs, and tackle some of our biggest challenges such as the climate crisis. To do that, we will need to adopt significant policy changes, and modernizing our water and wastewater infrastructure will be an important part of the solution. By increasing federal investment in these systems, we can create new jobs, ensure clean water, and provide communities with the resources they need to move their water systems into the modern era.
Congressman Peter A. DeFazio represents Oregon’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and is the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. For more about the committee, visit transportation.house.gov.