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ICYMI: Implementing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law At the EPA

The bipartisan Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act provides $60 billion dollars in funding to the EPA, with $50 billion towards improving our nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure, the largest investment of its kind in the agency’s history. Efficiently, impactfully, and equitably leveraging these new federal dollars is an immense undertaking that will require strategic planning and coordination among federal, state, and local entities as well as the private sector.

In the fourth event of our series “Implementing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” the Bipartisan Policy Center, National Association of Counties, and National League of Cities hosted Karen Dettmer, the Managing Director for Infrastructure Implementation at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water. Here are a few takeaways from the discussion.

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Improving water infrastructure across the nation is a massive undertaking for the EPA.

We have about 300 new hires that need to happen across the EPA... The amount of administrative work in the EPA is a pretty heavy lift and just getting those people on board and up to speed to ensure that they know how to help the states and answer the questions and help communities that we're dealing directly with. [It’s a] significant lift, but we're full speed ahead.

Equitably distributing funds is a top priority—and a major challenge.

We put out the recommendation that states reevaluate their definition of disadvantaged communities… We know that 21 states have either changed their definition of disadvantaged community for the drinking water [state revolving loan] fund or are contemplating it or are planning for it—because it’s a legislative process in the state. We thought…maybe in the first year we’d see one or two states change, but 21 states are changing their definition.

State revolving loan funds are an underappreciated, flexible tool for improving water infrastructure.

We've had our state revolving loan programs for a number of years, and I think the biggest success that we hear directly from states and from our regions is really the flexibility of the program… While we have rules and regulations and laws that the states have to follow in putting out that funding to communities, there's a wide range of flexibility.
There's a lot of misinformation out there about how difficult it is to apply for one of these state revolving loans. And that's why we want to get that technical assistance out to people. We want to make sure that they understand that there is assistance. There is help we can provide. And many states have technical assistance programs to provide that capacity to small and rural communities, to disadvantaged communities, to prepare that loan application.

New technical assistance programs are key to helping communities effectively utilize federal funds.

We have put out requests for applications for about $100 million from Environmental Finance Centers...from the EPA’s set aside of the BIL funding. And that is going out directly to environmental finance centers across the nation for regional approaches. But also, for the first time ever…there will be national environmental finance centers that can assist communities across the nation. And we expect those environmental finance centers to also talk to each other and share best practices and some of the challenges that they're seeing moving forward.
Some of you may have seen in Lowndes County [Alabama] about a year ago, there was a report from the New York Times about their just immense lack of access to wastewater systems. Today, the White House Infrastructure Coordinator, Mitch Landrieu is joining [Secretary Vilsack from the USDA; EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox] to make this announcement that 11 communities, that have been identified in the greatest need for wastewater access, will be given...targeted technical assistance directly from the EPA to close that wastewater access gap. That's the name of the program, Closing the Wastewater Access Gap.

The IIJA will help spur workforce development in the water sector.

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