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Reps. Sewell and Rogers introduce bipartisan legislation to combat Alabama's rural wastewater crisis

Bill would help households install or upgrade wastewater systems through USDA grant program


Earthjustice photo 2020

Washington D.C. – Today, U.S. Reps.Terri Sewell (AL-07) and Mike Rogers (AL-03) introduced the Rural Decentralized Water Systems Reauthorization Act in the House of Representatives. This bipartisan bill would help combat Alabama's rural wastewater crisis by strengthening and expanding the existing United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Decentralized Water Systems Program. The program provides grants to help low- and moderate-income households install or upgrade individually owned decentralized wastewater systems. Companion legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).

EarthJustice reported back in 2020 that a 2017 report found that over 30% of Lowndes County residents tested positive for hookworm — yet they were not able to look to their local government for support. When presented with the study’s findings, the Alabama Department of Public Health published a notice on its official website, claiming that no hookworm was present in Lowndes County.

Due to historical discrimination and marginalization, these issues disproportionately burden low-income African American, Indigenous, and Latinx populations — as do state and local laws that make it the homeowner’s responsibility to take care of sewage when the government won’t.

In Lowndes County, the cost of upgrading a septic system far exceeds the capacity of median incomes, especially within the African American community. A septic system capable of withstanding the Black Belt’s dense, clay-like soil costs up to $30,000, yet the median income of African American families is only $27,000.

"Access to adequate wastewater infrastructure is a basic human right, but for too many of my constituents, generations of disinvestment have created broken and failing wastewater systems that put the health of our communities at risk," said Rep. Sewell. "The Rural Decentralized Water Systems Reauthorization Act is an important step toward correcting this injustice. Many communities in the Black Belt have received USDA Rural Water and Waste Disposal Program grants to help households install and upgrade their wastewater systems. By reauthorizing and expanding this program, more rural and underserved communities will receive the wastewater infrastructure resources that they deserve."

"I am excited to join my colleague and friend from the great state of Alabama to reintroduce this important legislation," said Rep. Rogers. "I was especially proud to work in a bipartisan and bicameral manner to address the universal issue of our country's failing rural wastewater infrastructure. Reauthorizing this grant program will ensure access to clean water for more rural communities in Alabama and across the country."

"Water is a basic human right and access to safe, clean water should never be determined based on one's socioeconomic status," said Senator Booker. "We must ensure that all Americans have access to reliable water well and wastewater systems to prevent health hazards in communities where water contamination is a real threat. That is why I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing this bill that would expand and strengthen the USDA Rural Decentralized Water Systems Program to provide support to more low- and moderate-income households to modernize their outdated wastewater systems."

"Strengthening our infrastructure throughout West Virginia has been and remains a top priority of mine," said Senator Capito. "I'm glad to join Senator Booker in reintroducing legislation that will help improve home water systems in West Virginia, and reauthorize the Rural Decentralized Water Systems Grant Program that has proven to work in my state. This legislation is also included in my list of Farm Bill priorities this year, and I look forward to working to advancing it."

Approximately 20 percent of Americans dispose of wastewater through their own sewage disposal systems. Because these systems have high maintenance costs, certain failures often go unaddressed, potentially endangering the health of millions of Americans living in areas where water can be contaminated as a result of homes that lack a sewage system altogether or have a failing, improperly installed, or homemade septic system. The problem is particularly dire in parts of rural Alabama where—in the absence of municipal wastewater systems—many families have struggled to afford the installation and maintenance costs associated with individually owned wastewater systems.

The Rural Decentralized Water Systems Reauthorization Act:

  • Reauthorizes the Rural Decentralized Water Systems Grant Program through 2028

  • Reinstates eligibility for loans to individuals earning up to 100 percent of the area median income.

  • Targets funding through subgrants to individuals earning 60 percent or less of the area median income.

  • Increases the maximum subgrant or loan amount from $15,000 to $20,000.

  • Allows subgrant funding to include the cost of a performance warranty for individually owned household decentralized wastewater systems.

The Rural Decentralized Water Systems Reauthorization Act has been endorsed by the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP).

Bill text can be found here.


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