First big tranche of infrastructure dollars heading to states for water, lead pipes

Josh Lederman
National Guard sergeants fill buckets at a public water distribution site after a recent bout of cold weather caused large numbers of water outages, some going into their third week, in Jackson, Mississippi, March 4, 2021.
Rory Doyle | Reuters

The first major infusion of federal cash from the bipartisan infrastructure law is on its way to states across the U.S. to overhaul the nation's aging water infrastructure and dangerous lead pipes.

The Biden administration on Thursday announced that the Environmental Protection Agency will distribute $7.4 billion to U.S. states, tribes and territories for 2022 focused on water infrastructure grants and loan forgiveness. The funding is part of a broader $50 billion investment from the infrastructure law in water infrastructure that will be doled out over the course of five years.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, in an NBC News interview, said it was the "single largest investment in water infrastructure" in the history of the federal government.

"This law's investment in water is nothing short of transformational," Regan says. "We're less than three weeks post the president signing this, and we're hitting the ground running."

The funds include $2.9 billion specifically earmarked for replacing lead pipes, following a promise by President Joe Biden that under the deal every remaining lead pipe in the nation will be eliminated. Another $866 million will be designated for dealing with "forever chemicals" and other water contaminants that threaten the drinking water supply, the EPA said.

After months of hard-fought congressional negotiations, Biden last month signed into law the $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal, which includes $550 billion in new investments such as pipes and pollution remediation.

Yet explaining to the public exactly how they'll benefit from the far-reaching deal has been a challenge for the Biden administration, which last month deployed the president to a crumbling bridge in New Hampshire and, on Tuesday, to a technical college in Minnesota to call attention to how individual communities could benefit.

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Regan, in the interview, pointed to raw sewage backups in Detroit and hundreds of thousands of lead pipe servicing homes and schools in Chicago as examples of urgent water infrastructure needs that would benefit from new federal funding.

"When I think about communities like Jackson, Mississippi, and I'm having conversations with 8 and 9-year-olds who are frustrated that they have to evacuate their school because their schools' water infrastructure is inadequate, obviously, your heart goes out," said Regan.

Still, the Biden administration has only a limited say in how the funds get spent. Some of the law's funding will flow through federal grants, which the administration can issue to specific projects it deems worthy. But the majority of the dollars will be distributed to states, who will ultimately decide which projects they want to fund.

That's created a challenge for Biden's administration to ensure that the money is spent in a way that meets its goals, such as focusing funds on underserved and disadvantaged communities, rather than on other priorities that individual states may have.

In a letter to governors being sent on Thursday and obtained by NBC News, Regan said the federal government and the states "share the same goals" and implored them to focus their share of funds on low-income, disadvantaged and minority communities.

"The agency strongly urges states to maximize the potential to remove barriers and prioritize the distribution of grant funds to disadvantaged communities," Regan wrote. "It is a top priority for the EPA to ensure communities that have historically struggled to access SRF funding are prioritized."