Biden administration announces initiative to improve wastewater sanitation in underserved rural communities

The Biden administration announced plans on Tuesday to leverage financial and technical tools to ensure that historically underserved communities can access wastewater sanitation resources.

The pilot initiative, a joint effort between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), will focus on 11 rural communities across the country where residents lack basic wastewater management.

“The America that we all believe in is a land of opportunity,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “But, for historically marginalized communities from Alabama to Alaska, that opportunity is stolen when basic sanitation doesn’t work — exposing adults and children to backyard sewage and disease.”

Through the Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap Community Initiative, the EPA and USDA will be working with Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, West Virginia and tribal nations to help communities take advantage of relevant federal funding opportunities.

One such resource comes from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, which provides $11.7 billion in loans and grants for water infrastructure initiatives, including wastewater management projects, the initiative’s partners stated.

“President Biden has been clear — we cannot leave any community behind as we rebuild America’s infrastructure with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” said White House infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu.

“This includes rural and Tribal communities who for too long have felt forgotten,” he added.

About 2.2 million people in the U.S. lack basin running water and indoor plumbing, while even more live with inadequate sewage infrastructure that endangers the health of residents, according to the groups.

The new collaboration, the agencies said, will help communities access the financing and technical assistance that is available to improve wastewater infrastructure — aiming to “close the gap” for underserved populations.

The 11 communities included in the pilot program are Bolivar County, Miss.; Doña Ana County, N.M.; Duplin County, N.C.; Greene County, Ala.; Halifax County, N.C.; Harlan County, Ky.; Lowndes County, Ala.; McDowell County, W.Va.; Raleigh County, W.Va.; San Carlos Apache Tribe, Ariz.; and Santo Domingo Pueblo, N.M.

The EPA-USDA partnership builds upon the policy recommendations of the nonprofit organization DigDeep, which released a report in 2019 called “Closing the Water Access Gap in the U.S.” — bearing a name similar to that of the new federal program.

Among the findings of the DigDeep report was the fact that entire communities in Alabama’s Lowndes County — one of the pilot regions — are living without running water or a flush toilet.

George McGraw, founder and CEO of DigDeep, applauded the EPA-USDA pilot program, stressing that the announcement “is proof of the power of collective action” within the country’s emerging water, sanitation and hygiene sector.

McGraw said in a statement that he is pleased to see this “commitment by two powerful federal agencies to intervene directly to close the wastewater gap” — adding that his organization plans to further deepen its research and advocacy efforts.

As far as the 11 participating communities and tribes are concerned, each population will be gaining direct assistance in developing wastewater assessments, including technical engineering support, according to the EPA-USDA announcement.

These communities will also receive help designing solution plans, identifying funding opportunities and building long-term capacity, the partners stated.

“We recognize that there are still people who have been going without the basics,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“By combining USDA and EPA resources and taking advantage of the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we can restore to these communities a sense of economic vitality and social dignity that the people living there deserve,” he added.