The first 100 days of President Biden’s term are over. In that time, President Biden has committed to tackling the climate crisis, rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, and remedying the disproportionate harm that low-income and communities of color have faced from inequitable land use policies and ongoing pollution.
What are the next steps President Biden can take to protect our nation’s waters – and the people and environment that depend on them now, and far into our nation’s future? California Coastkeeper Alliance has laid out 5 key priorities to move our nation forward to healthier, more equitable, and resilient communities:
1. The Clean Water Act must be strengthened and enforced.
Pollution comes with a cost: at the cost of our health, our environment, and a physical cost to treat water that we depend on in our homes. We simply can’t afford to continue polluting our rivers and groundwater aquifers – degrading the limited water supplies our nation has, especially in the arid West.
The federal Clean Water Act was enacted nearly 50 years ago, which set a goal to restore and maintain clean water in all of the nation’s rivers, lakes, wetlands, and other waterways by 1985. Five decades later, roughly 95% of all assessed waterways in California alone are still polluted or “impaired,” making these waters unsafe to swim, drink, or fish.
Despite clean water protections, our nation’s waters continue to be degraded from industrial pollution, agricultural runoff, and legacy pollutants that prevent our fish, wildlife, and communities from thriving.
Our nation is long overdue for a change. President Biden has an important opportunity to set stringent goals and provide needed funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, and direct the EPA to partner with states, to increase enforcement of egregious and ongoing violations that pollute and degrade our rivers, lakes, and beaches.
Critically, President Biden needs to overturn the Trump Administration’s action to strip Clean Water Act protections for waterways around the country, and ensure that the Clean Water Act applies to all waters – including seasonal streams and wetlands that currently lack protections for development or pollution.
2. Communities should be directly engaged and involved in environmental remediation and permit decisions.
The Biden Administration has taken steps to elevate and prioritize the needs of environmental justice and disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of our nation’s worst pollution. While the federal EPA is making significant progress with the rollout of the EJSCREEN: Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping tool, building from the CalEnviro Screen first developed in California, remedying this ongoing and disproportionate harm requires direct engagement and actions informed by the communities most impacted by pollution.
The federal government needs to be informed of the actual needs and potential impacts faced by the individual community. Though, too many communities lack the time, energy, or resources to engage in decisions that impact their health and wellbeing. Meanwhile, project applicants and proponents have access to professional staff and lobbyists to engage in the project leasing and permit process.
The Biden Administration needs to help offset this burden on local communities by developing and funding a community capacity building program within federal agencies. This program is needed to provide impacted communities and sovereign tribal governments with the resources necessary to participate in regulatory processes, either directly or in partnership with environmental justice organizations, require agency staff to conduct direct local outreach, and require project proponents pay an additional 5% lease or project fee to fund federal and state community capacity building programs.
3. Long-term water affordability programs must be prioritized.
California is facing a water affordability crisis. A recent state survey found that Californians are shouldering $1 billion in water debt and other utility debt tied to their water bill, impacting 1.6 million Californian households and approximately 5 million Californians.
Water is the most basic form of PPE – without it, families can’t wash their hands, cook a meal, bathe, or even flush a toilet. Families need their electricity connected to keep their lights on, food and medicine refrigerated, work and learn remotely, and stay connected. Yet millions of Californians face a looming threat of water and power shutoffs and a mounting debt level they can’t afford.
No one should lose access to water or power because of the inability to pay, especially amid a global pandemic.
California is set to receive approximately $110 million in new one-time water affordability funding from recent federal COVID-19 relief packages, as well as some additional federal funds for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). While these funds are needed to help some of California’s most financially strained water systems, energy providers, and low-income families, these amounts only barely begin to address the total water debt issue in California.
We need to go beyond crisis assistance and create long-term water affordability solutions that support families and keep water systems solvent. We need the federal government to partner with states to create long-term low-income water rate assistance programs that help both American families and our water systems.
4. Water Infrastructure solutions must prioritize water recycling, efficiency, and green infrastructure.
The confluence of the COVID-19, racial justice, and climate crises has brought new attention to deep-rooted challenges and created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more equitable and resilient water system. The American Jobs Plan, released by President Biden this last March, paves the way for the nation to upgrade failing, centuries old infrastructure.
As we collectively reimage and rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, we need to keep in mind that water infrastructure is not created equal.
Forward-thinking and resilient water solutions, like water recycling and stormwater capture and treatment, need to be prioritized. In California, there are over 222 shovel-ready water recycling projects in need of $6.5 billion to supply cost-effective and climate-resilient water for California communities. Meanwhile over 1.7 million acre feet per year of water is discharged from wastewater treatment plant directly into the ocean with no environmental benefit – water that could be recycled and reused, rather than be wasted and potentially harm coastal health by creating ocean acidification “hot spots.”
These projects are environmentally-sound and cost-effective, unlike expensive imported water that drain our rivers or environmentally-destructive ocean desalination projects that can create dead zones of our coast and hurt California families that are already facing increasingly expensive water bills.
5. Our nation needs to collectively and responsibly prepare for sea level rise.
As described in recent reports, the coming decade is a pivotal time for California – and its coastal communities – to act in order to prepare for sea level rise before more extreme and more expensive solutions are needed along the coast. If greenhouse gas emissions stay on their current course, California could see a foot increase by 2030, nearly 3-foot increase by 2050, and a 7-10-foot increase by 2100 along its coast. Areas that might have seemed safe for 80 or 100 years might now only be stable for 40 or 50 years as the risk of coastal hazards and flooding increase over the next century.
Governor Newsom and President Biden have each committed to preserving 30% of the state and nation’s lands and waters by 2030. Though, preserving our nation’s coast requires proactive restoration and protection of coastal habitat, and forward-thinking investment and planning that allows coastal ecosystems to migrate inland as sea levels rise.
To do this, the Biden Administration needs to prevent taxpayer dollars from being wasted on new or expanded infrastructure – like our highways, wastewater treatment plants, and power plants – that are projected to be underwater within the lifetime of that project.
Second, the Biden Administration should make a clear determination and national policy that seawalls and other hard armoring projects that intersect with the mean hightide line during the life of that project are a public trust trespass on public lands – that must then be subject to additional fees to support living shoreline and natural adaptation efforts.
Together, these long-term actions can move our nation forward on an equitable and resilient path where every family has access to clean, reliable, and affordable water, a healthy environment, and thriving coast.
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