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Severe Weather, Aging Water Systems Top List of Lawmakers’ Environmental Concerns

By Kim Tyrrell  |  January 17, 2023

Over the past decade, the increasing frequency and intensity of severe weather have put state economies in peril as the costs of disaster recovery soar. With an eye toward protecting communities and speeding recovery, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Defense Department, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies have bolstered funding to existing programs and established new funding mechanisms to meet state needs. Also on lawmakers’ radar: the reliability of water infrastructure and the environmental and public health threats posed by per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, known as PFAS.

Hot Topic—Preparing for Disasters

Many states have long been in a response and recovery posture when it comes to disasters, but increased costs and repeated extreme weather events have made this untenable. In 2021 alone, damages from natural disasters are estimated to exceed $280 billion. Current funding to support disaster mitigation is primarily managed at the federal level, with states applying to federal agencies to support mitigation projects. Through the STORM (Safeguarding Tomorrow Through Ongoing Risk Mitigation) Revolving Loan Fund, FEMA may provide funds to certain state agencies, which in turn can offer low-interest loans to pay for projects to protect against wildfires, earthquakes, flooding and other catastrophic events.

Modeled after the successful clean water state revolving fund, the STORM fund lets states prioritize projects for municipalities and support large projects to improve infrastructure resilience. The loan repayments will replenish the fund, allowing for ongoing investments. Over the coming months, states are likely to develop intended-use plans for the funds and pass authorizing legislation to create a framework to help them manage fund disbursement. This provides states with another tool to better protect their states from future disasters.

Hot Topic—Water Infrastructure

States are working with the federal government, localities and other stakeholders to ensure the future reliability and sustainability of their water infrastructure. Needs include providing safe drinking water, treating wastewater and managing stormwater. The Environmental Protection Agency recently estimated it will take more than $472 billion over 20 years to improve and maintain the nation’s drinking water infrastructure, the deteriorating state of which has attracted attention to lead levels and emerging contaminants.

Funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is bolstering state revolving loan funds, which can be used to tackle water infrastructure needs. States are already familiar with managing drinking water and clean water revolving funds and now have access to new programs and additional targeted appropriations. The infrastructure law invests more than $50 billion in water infrastructure programs, including over $20 billion for safe drinking water. Through the revolving funds, states can access $15 billion specifically for lead service line replacement and associated activities. Disadvantaged communities are also in a unique position to benefit from new grant programs and forgivable loans to fund drinking water projects.

While responding to this historic national investment in water infrastructure, states continue to explore policy options to streamline programs, conduct needs assessments and provide technical assistance. Legislatures are also leveraging funds to protect water supplies, fortify storage systems, expand water treatment facilities and prioritize the needs of small and disadvantaged communities.

Hot Topic—PFAS Chemicals

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a large group of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, are used in a wide range of products and are extremely persistent in the environment. They’re often found in soil and water near sites where they are manufactured, used or discarded. Given the associated public health impacts, state legislatures and the federal government are regulating the use of PFAS and cleaning up the environmental degradation that their production and use have caused.

In recent years, states have enacted legislation to restrict PFAS in firefighting foam; to regulate the presence of PFAS in drinking water, food packaging, textiles and consumer products; and to allocate funds for testing, cleanup and remediation. Some states have even banned the use of PFAS outright, with some exceptions for unavoidable circumstances.

Looking ahead, states are expected to continue to tackle PFAS through legislation, agency rulemaking and legal action. With $10 billion in funding from the infrastructure law dedicated to addressing PFAS and other contaminants, states are better positioned than ever to mitigate these pollutants in their drinking water.

Kim Tyrrell directs NCSL’s Environment Program.

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