Making bipartisan progress on safe drinking water

Staff photo by E.J. Harris U.S. Rep. Greg Walden

All of us in Oregon and across the country deserve access to safe, clean drinking water. That’s why the Energy and Commerce Committee — where I serve as chairman — just passed bipartisan legislation to modernize the nation’s drinking water infrastructure.

Today, drinking water flows to our homes and businesses through more than one million miles of pipes operated by both publicly and privately owned water systems. Many of these pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with an expected lifespan of 75 to 100 years. In fact, some communities in Oregon still rely on wood stave water pipes that are reaching the end of their life. While in most places drinking water quality remains high, we also have seen horrible problems from Flint, Michigan to drinking fountains in Oregon schools.

Our legislation focuses on addressing drinking water systems’ physical needs, aiding states and utilities with compliance and operation of the drinking water program, and encouraging the wisest use of money that is spent.

For the last 20 years, Congress has helped drinking water delivery systems meet the challenge of providing consumers with safe and affordable water through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. From the end of 1997 through 2016, Oregon has received more than $274 million in grants to help improve the safety and quality of tap water, comply with drinking water rules and reporting requirements, and give a helping hand to the most economically distressed communities struggling to provide their residents safe drinking water. This fiscal year, Oregon is set to receive nearly $12 million in funding to improve its water systems.

Many rural communities across Oregon struggle with failing infrastructure and a limited ability to afford these increasingly costly projects. They turn to the drinking water fund for help. In Malheur County, rural communities such as Vale and Nyssa are completing new water treatment and storage facilities to bring safe drinking water to their residents. In Umatilla County, the city of Pendleton is upgrading more than 30 miles of water lines that are nearly a century old — Mayor John Turner said this project would be impossible without the program.

Our bill, the Drinking Water System Improvement Act, continues those important investments and authorizes $8 billion over five years for the drinking water fund while also expanding the number of ways in which the fund can be used to improve delivery systems. In fact, we’re authorizing an increase of $350 million in funding for next year from which states such as Oregon could benefit.

Perhaps most important is how the bill looks to the future, using smart technology to monitor drinking water quality in real time. This allows us to better prevent, detect, or rapidly respond to contaminants in our water systems. The ability to have up-to-the-minute information helps ensure water is safe and clean, system leaks and recent contamination are identified quickly, and the accuracy and availability of compliance data is maintained. We also included a program to help our schools replace drinking fountains that might contain lead.

These are just some of the highlights of the bill. As this measure heads to the House for a vote, I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure it passes and we do our part to make sure the water Americans drink is safe.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River), represents Oregon’s second congressional district, which includes 20 counties in central, southern and Eastern Oregon.

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