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How the infrastructure bill delivers on clean water — and how it falls short

As many as 22 million people get drinking water from systems with lead pipes, and twice as many rely on systems that violate safe water standards. A large part of the Senate infrastructure bill aims to solve those issues. NewsHour correspondent Lisa Desjardins talks to community leaders about what they need, and Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council about whether the bill delivers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Millions of Americans lack safe drinking water, as wastewater overflows pour bacteria into our rivers and lakes.

    One of the key provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill now in Congress targets those water issues.

    Lisa Desjardins has more on the difference that it could make.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The bill would be the largest federal investment in clean water in American history.

    And it tackles some enormous issues. As many as 22 million Americans get their drinking water from systems with lead pipes known as potentially toxic and twice as many Americans rely on systems in violation of safe water standards. The Senate infrastructure bill would spend about $50 billion to overhaul those systems.

    To dive into this more, I'm joined by Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    Erik, let's just start with the big picture here. How serious are the issues with clean water in this country right now, and how is this bill trying to tackle them?

  • Erik Olson:

    Well, unfortunately, the whole issue of water infrastructure has been out of sight and out of mind.

    We have got water systems all over the country that are falling apart, that are aging, many of them 50 to 100 years old. So it's a huge problem nationwide in all 50 states. And it's something — it's not just the lead pipes, but it's also things like sewer — combined sewer overflow with raw sue going into lakes and streams. It's contaminated water with toxic chemicals.

    So, it really is time to make these investments. It's a wise time, with low interest rates, to make these investments. So we're really glad that Senate bill is going to start to address these problems.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We really wanted to get our hands around what this means, so we reached out to one of the many communities affected and one that actually Senate staffers went to when they were trying to write one version of this bill, Jackson, Mississippi, where they have been underwater boil alerts off and on for much of this year.

    We talked to the mayor about their aging system and sort of what that really means for his residents.

  • Chokwe Lumumba (D):

    When I think about the challenges of families in Jackson, we have to realize that how they feel is more than just a mere feeling of inconvenience. It is fear associated with the inability to get water in their homes.

    And so residents are tired, right? They want to know that their lives have value. They want to know that they don't have to live in substandard conditions.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One of the problems Jackson has is a money problem.

    Like many lower-income communities, which include many communities of color, they just can't afford really the large costs of new water infrastructure. Can you talk about how this bill tries to tackle those problems in particular?

  • Erik Olson:

    What we have seen, especially in Black and brown communities and tribal communities, across the country is really this disproportionate lack of investment with water infrastructure, water problems that are really severe in many of these communities, a lot of these lead pipes, a lot of contamination with toxic chemicals, and, frankly, sewage systems that are falling apart, drinking water supplies that aren't up to the task.

    So what we're seeing is certainly a nationwide problem. It affects all 50 states. It affects communities all over. But it especially hits hard in some of these lower-income communities and communities of color across the country.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I know from our reporting that the bill does try to set aside some money, make it easier for those communities to get grants that they don't have to pay back.

    You mentioned lead pipes. Those are something that many communities across the country — it doesn't matter your income level — have, and also toxic chemicals, PFAS. A lot of folks might know that because it goes into nonstick pans.

    But that kind of chemical so hard to pull out of water once it gets in there. There's some $25 billion in this bill to deal with those things. How far is that going to get us? Does that replace all the lead pipes in this country? Does that solve this toxic chemical problem? What does it do?

  • Erik Olson:

    Well, so there are two chunks of money that are specifically directed to those two issues that you mentioned.

    One is, there's $15 billion to help pull out some of the lead pipes in the country. So, the estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency are, it's going to cost at least around $45 billion, maybe more than that, to pull out all the lead pipes. So we're putting a down payment of around $15 billion. It'll take care of maybe a third of that problem.

    The other issue you mentioned are these forever toxic chemicals. They're called PFAS. They're used in nonstick pans, as you mentioned. But they're also used in a lot of other uses. They were used widely, and still are used in some places, as firefighting foam. And often they were just sprayed out onto the ground, and seeped into the groundwater, ran off into streams.

    And they have contaminated tens of millions of people's drinking water now. So they're very hard to get out of the water. You have to treat them with advanced technology. So the bill does put $10 billion towards pulling some of those out of our water.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So it sounds like this definitely would do something significant, maybe not solve the problem.

    You mentioned tribal communities. And we know that those are the areas of this country with the least access to water at all. We also wanted to hear what their thoughts were. We reached out and talked to — I spoke to the president of the Navajo Nation today. Here's what he said.

  • Jonathan Nez:

    Thirty to 40 percent of our Navajo people do not have running water. People drive miles, hours just to get water to their homes.

    It's not just about drinking water. It's about agriculture. It's about getting water to our livestock, getting water to our farms here, because that is also what sustains life here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So he's hopeful about this bill.

    But can you take us through — that's a big problem. Those are lands with no water infrastructure. What does this bill do for that, if it passes?

  • Erik Olson:

    We have tribal lands all over the country, and their water problems date back to the 1800s, when a lot of the reservations were created. Native Americans were forced onto these reservations in most cases, and often without clarity about where the water was supposed to come from.

    And they're still living with these problems. So the bill does include about $3.5 billion specifically for the Indian Health Service to help with sanitation. There is very limited funding really that is specifically targeted to help drinking water.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, Erik Olson, we're talking about big dollars, but we're also talking about big problems.

    We appreciate your time.

  • Erik Olson:

    It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me on.

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