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    Padilla Calls for Permanent Water Assistance Program During Hearing on Threats to Americans’ Affordable, Reliable Water Access

    U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) today convened his first hearing as Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife. The hearing entitled “Water Affordability and Small Water Systems Assistance” examined how rising water rates, aging infrastructure, and extreme weather events are increasing water affordability challenges for communities across the country. The witnesses discussed the need for a permanent national water assistance program and the importance of sustained federal water funding to build on the historic water infrastructure investments included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for ensuring access to safe, affordable water and sanitation services—especially for Americans who rely on small and rural water systems.

    “Access to water is the foundation for strong and healthy communities, economies, and families,” said Senator Padilla. “This topic is near and dear to me and to 40 million Californians—as well as to all Americans who have ever had to worry about whether they could afford their next water bill or if their water will be shut off because they cannot pay. For decades, we’ve underinvested in water infrastructure, pushing the cost of maintaining and repairing water infrastructure on hard-working ratepayers. It’s time for a paradigm shift in how we finance and fund needed water infrastructure for communities, and it’s long past time that we have a permanent water assistance program to help communities pay their water bills, just like we do for energy assistance.”

    During the hearing, Padilla heard testimony from Mr. Kyle Jones of the Community Water Center from Visalia, CA, Ms. Rosemary Menard of the Department of Water from Santa Cruz, CA, and Mr. Pepper of the Wyoming Association of Rural Water Systems from Glenrock, WY.

    Padilla started by underlining the fundamental and universal need for water—the foundation for strong and healthy communities, economies and families—especially for disadvantaged communities, which frequently lack adequate staffing and the financial capacity to make necessary upgrades. In his conversation with Ms. Menard, she agreed that it’s time to look to a new structure for funding and urged for more state and federal funding to fix the broken business model around water infrastructure. Padilla then spoke about the rising cost of water and how it disproportionately impacts low-income, rural, Tribal, and farmworker communities and asked Mr. Jones to speak about how critical it is that federal investments support water infrastructure. Mr. Jones responded by saying that we must prioritize those with greatest need and focus on ensuring water is affordable for everyone.

    In a second round of questioning, Padilla spoke about the importance of establishing a permanent water assistance program to make water more accessible for all. Mr. Jones agreed with Padilla that it makes no sense to have a permanent energy assistance program but not also a permanent water assistance program. Padilla then asked both witnesses to expand on the challenges their communities face in accessing funding for infrastructure projects and how Congress can help bolster capacity in these communities. Mr. Jones responded by speaking to the lack of technical assistance needed for his community and spoke to how California is working to ensure that communities know how to run their water systems properly.

    In his closing remarks, Padilla called for Congress to act in a bipartisan way towards the common goal of ensuring that every family has access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation, noting that only then can we truly be an equal society.

    Key Excerpts:

    • Now when it comes to clean water, Americans too often face the heartbreaking choice. Just last fall, the Los Angeles Times told the story of Rosario Rodriguez, a woman living in a rural community in western Fresno County in California. With bills to pay, a family to feed, and a skyrocketing water bill after a summer of drought, Rosario was forced to choose between paying the electric bill or the water bill.
    • For the Rodriguez family and many families like them, extreme drought and the increasingly devastating impacts of our changing climate, combined with aging water infrastructure, have made access to clean, affordable water a privilege instead of a basic human right.
    • Water systems, especially those in small rural or disadvantaged communities, also frequently lack adequate staffing and financial capacity to make necessary upgrades. As a result, the cost of maintaining and repairing water infrastructure has fallen on states, localities, and of course, ratepayers.
    • This all points to an alarming water affordability crisis and an environmental justice crisis as well, with underserved communities who already struggle to afford utilities in rural, low income and tribal communities being hit hardest by rising water rates.
    • Working together to see how we can provide permanent water utility assistance to communities in need, and how we can make sure that no American has to choose between putting food on the table or pouring water into their glass.
    Padilla’s Opening Remarks
    Padilla’s Questioning Round 1
    Padilla’s Questioning Round 2
    Padilla’s Final Question and Closing Remarks

    Additional information on the hearing can be found here.

    Full transcript of Padilla’s opening remarks, as delivered, can be found here:

    Good afternoon, everybody. This hearing will come to order. It’s my honor to welcome everyone to the first hearing of this Congress for the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife.

    I apologize for the slightly delayed start of the hearing, a vote opened on the Senate floor just a few minutes ago. But I can attest that Senator Lummis and I were among the first to cast our votes, so we can race over here and try to begin as on time as possible. We do expect additional colleagues to join us over the next several minutes.

    Today we’ll be examining the issue of water affordability and small water system assistance in communities across the United States. There’s a reason why there’s a saying in the West, that “Whiskey’s for drinking, and water is for fighting over.” Access to water is the foundation for strong and healthy communities, economies and families.

    As a Californian, this topic is near and dear to me, and to the 40 million Californians that I represent, as well as to all Americans who have ever had to worry about whether or not they could afford their next water bill, or if their water would be shut off because they can’t keep up with the bills. In a country as wealthy as the United States, nobody should have to worry about whether aging, deteriorating pipes in rural communities will hold up, whether wells could run dry due to an extended drought, or whether the climate crisis and extreme weather will bring catastrophe to our water supply.

    So it’s only right that we take a close look at the state of our country’s water systems, and the federal investments needed to make sure that all Americans have access to safe, affordable and reliable water supply. After all, it’s not just about our economy, and environmental protection, it’s about fundamental health and human safety.

    So I want to thank our witnesses who are here today to discuss their experiences with America’s aging water infrastructure, as well as with the families who are experiencing rising costs. I also want to thank Chairman Carper, Ranking Member Capito and my subcommittee ranking member, Senator Lummis, as well as all of our hardworking committee staff for making today’s hearing a priority.

    Now when it comes to clean water, Americans too often face the heartbreaking choice. Just last fall, the Los Angeles Times told the story of Rosario Rodriguez, a woman living in a rural community in western Fresno County in California. With bills to pay, a family to feed, and a skyrocketing water bill after a summer of drought, Rosario was forced to choose between paying the electric bill or the water bill. Not to mention food, school supplies, clothing, and more. And because there were few assistance programs available for water bills beyond one time payments, she was forced to pay the water bill in full and look elsewhere for electric rate assistance. In 2012, California became the first state in the nation to recognize in statutes a human right to water.

    But California can’t do it alone. For the Rodriguez family and many families like them, extreme drought and the increasingly devastating impacts of our changing climate, combined with aging water infrastructure, have made access to clean, affordable water a privilege instead of a basic human right.

    This is the result in large part of decades of underinvestment in water infrastructure. Water systems, especially those in small rural or disadvantaged communities, also frequently lack adequate staffing and financial capacity to make necessary upgrades. As a result, the cost of maintaining and repairing water infrastructure has fallen on states, localities, and of course, ratepayers. In fact, over the past 20 years, water rates have increased at three times the rate of inflation, significantly higher than the rate of energy bill increases. For example, the American Water Works Association has found that one in three Americans struggles to pay their water bills on time. And the EPA projects that 36% of US households will not be able to afford drinking water by next year. That’s more than one in three. This all points to an alarming water affordability crisis and an environmental justice crisis as well, with underserved communities who already struggle to afford utilities in rural, low income and tribal communities being hit hardest by rising water rates.

    So in this moment, we need a unified approach from the federal government to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable, clean drinking water.

    Over the past few years, I’ve been proud to see Congress come together to provide over $1 billion to help low-income households pay their water bills. After the outbreak of COVID-19, I was proud to help pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the single largest investment in water infrastructure in our nation’s history, bringing an unprecedented $55 billion to communities across the country to bolster drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, replace lead pipes and address forever chemicals known as PFAS. I was also proud to support this committee’s work to authorize a new EPA pilot program to help rural and low-income households pay for water bills. Together, these are great first steps to lifting up families in need and investing in our nation’s clean water future. But these are temporary rate assistance programs, and investments that only begin to address the backlog of our deferred maintenance needs.

    So we cannot stop there.

    The $1 billion dollars for utility assistance, for example, is set to expire this year. And despite the robust investments we made in LIHEAP, a permanent Energy Assistance Program, we still do not have a permanent equivalent program for water assistance.

    And that’s what today is all about. Working together to see how we can provide permanent water utility assistance to communities in need, and how we can make sure that no American has to choose between putting food on the table or pouring water into their glass. I’m excited to hear from all of our witnesses about what families are still facing, what communities and utilities see as the most pressing challenges to delivering affordable water and how we can best strengthen our nation’s water supply systems. And with that, let’s turn to Ranking Member Lummis for her opening statement.

    Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA)
    Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA)https://www.padilla.senate.gov/
    The proud son of immigrants from Mexico, Senator Alex Padilla, believes in giving everyone a fair shot at the American dream. A progressive problem solver, Alex has dedicated his career to finding solutions to the toughest challenges and fighting for communities that are too often left out and left behind.
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