One of the lessons learned from last month’s record-breaking cold weather is that critical infrastructure, such as the systems that provide clean drinking water and handle wastewater, cannot be taken for granted. A U.S. Senate committee is now working on legislation to shore up those systems nationwide and is getting a little help from Oklahoma in the process.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is moving aggressively to address not only water issues, but road projects and broadband expansion, the sort of infrastructure items that generally give members of Congress the opportunity to work across the aisle. The committee's hearing Wednesday morning was focused on the challenges facing drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects.
"These systems often operate out of sight and out of mind, and only garner attention when there is a failure,” said Shellie Chard, Director of Oklahoma's Water Quality Division.
Chard was one of four experts who testified at the hearing. In her opening statement, Chard noted that there were plenty of system failures last month due to the extreme cold, which served as an important reminder.
"Drinking water and wastewater systems must become more resilient to significant weather events and changes in climate," said Chard, who participated virtually from Oklahoma City.
Also participating virtually, for the first 20 minutes of the hearing, was the committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Carper, (D) Delaware. Sen. Carper missed his train from Wilmington, DE, but caught the next train and connected from his seat. Carper said the shortcomings of the nation's water delivery systems were exposed, not just by the winter storms, but also by the pandemic.
"Sadly, the reality for far too many communities around our country is that they don’t have reliable access to water that’s essential for daily life," Sen. Carper said.
Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, a member of the committee, asked Chard about EPA regulations.
"Should national regulations take into account the varying capabilities of the water systems," asked Sen. Inhofe. "and are they doing that?"
Chard said it would certainly help.
"Anytime we see expanding regulatory provisions, we have to recognize that there are going to be struggles for small systems in order to comply," replied Chard, "not only the cost, but on the technical capabilities, as well."
Committee leaders say there will be more hearings, but they are close to reaching an agreement on a bipartisan, comprehensive bill that would address these issues and more.