Legislative Update

Spring 2020 Legislative Update

This edition of NACWA’s Legislative Update, current through June 10, 2020, provides information on Congressional activities of interest to the nation’s public clean water agencies. For more detailed information regarding NACWA legislative activities, click on the web links in selected news items or visit NACWA’s website.

Please contact NACWA’s Legislative team, Kristina Surfus or Jason Isakovic, with any questions or comments on the Update topics.

Legislative Perspectives

The COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the globe over the past several months has brought about some of the most unprecedented and challenging times we have experienced. The pandemic is having tremendous and devastating impacts on both human health and the economy, as is being witnessed first-hand by public clean water sector.

As a result, most of Congress’ time and legislative efforts this spring have focused on COVID-19 relief and recovery measures. NACWA and the water sector have been continually working with Congress, especially Leadership and the relevant committees, during this period to communicate what the clean water sector is doing in response to COVID-19. NACWA has also been strongly advocating for federal assistance to help utilities mitigate the impacts they are incurring, or expected to incur, as a result of increased financial hardship to customers, declining business and industrial revenues, implementing shutoff moratoriums, enacting emergency plans and protocols, and more.

To date, the COVID-19 packages that have passed into law have focused mainly on immediate “relief” –  health and medical response efforts, aid to small businesses, direct cash payments to individuals, loans to companies in “immediately” distressed industries such as airlines, and targeted assistance to states and local governments for COVID-19 expenditures. While enormous sums have already been spent, the massive impacts confronting the public sector in general and clean water in particular have yet to receive commensurate support from Congress.

In late spring Congress–largely led by Democrats, but with some bipartisan support–began to focus more on the looming revenue impacts to local and state governments. The most significant development in this regard was the Houses’ passage of its next phase of COVID-19 relief, titled the Heroes Act. This bill would provide broad relief for cities and counties, amending and expanding upon municipal aid created in the earlier CARES Act to allow federal aid to support lost revenues and to flow to local governments of all sizes.

These programmatic expansions may benefit some utilities, but NACWA continues emphasizing that broad municipal relief is only a step forward and will not benefit all public clean water agencies. Direct aid for the water sector is still needed.

For water specifically, the Houses’ Heroes Act includes $1.5 billion for water ratepayer assistance. While this funding level remains well below the full need for water ratepayer assistance – which NACWA has summarized for the water and wastewater sector in a fact sheet available here – it importantly represents the first time that federal assistance for water ratepayers has passed the U.S. House and lays down an important marker as Congress moves forward with the next relief package.

The House’s Heroes Act is an important marker but is not expected to advance “as is” in the Senate, which is moving more slowly and expressing reluctance on further spending. The timing and manner in which negotiations continue will depend in large part on economic and health trends over the summer. The better-than-expected May jobs report tempered calls for additional quick action and NACWA’s best prediction is that the soonest Congress could pass into law a next phase of COVID-19 assistance is early August.

As conversations continue, NACWA continues engaging with the entire water sector in demonstrating unified support for our water priorities, as well as with the municipal sector broadly on shared funding and financing goals. 

Furthermore, political pressures may force both Congressional Republicans and Democrats at some point to come together and put forth a long-term economic recovery and jobs bill with infrastructure as a key component. Political winds in an election year makes timing and the legislative vehicle unclear, and fiscal constraints, among other issues, certainly provide challenges in putting together an ultimate bipartisan bill.

However, it is clear publicly and behind closed doors that both Congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as the White House, have some degree of infrastructure stimulus on their minds. While NACWA’s primary and immediate objective remains securing direct federal COVID-19 relief assistance for public clean water agencies, we are also actively positioning the sector for inclusion in a larger infrastructure package when the time comes.

While Congress spent much of the spring focused on COVID-19, we did see some progress on “normal business”. There was good progress in May on the water infrastructure front as the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee passed a bipartisan Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). This legislation includes several key priorities NACWA has been advocating for over the past year, including a three-year, $7.5 billion authorization for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the largest increase ever (outside of the 2009 stimulus bill). We anticipate continued progress over the summer and fall on WRDA.

While the WRDA process is separate from Congress’ ongoing efforts related to COVID-19, it is possible that a final WRDA bill could be potentially wrapped up into a COVID-19 relief and/or infrastructure stimulus package later this year.

No update on the 116th Congress would be complete without mentioning PFAS. After a busy 2019, things have remained relatively quiet as a stalemate has continued between the House Democrat and Senate Republican majorities since the House’s January passage of a mostly partisan PFAS legislative package. However, we anticipate another strong push for PFAS provisions to be included this year in any conferenced WRDA bill, or the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as was the case last year.

NACWA continues to work with Congress to ensure that any PFAS provisions follow a risk-based scientific and regulatory process and take into account the unique concerns of clean water utilities as “receivers” and not “polluters” of these chemicals.

Lastly, on the annual appropriations front, except for potential inclusion of COVID-19 related recovery funding, the Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 appropriations bills are expected to largely reflect that of the FY20 package with some plus ups. This is due to the budget limits put in place for FY20-21 by Congress as part of last year’s “Bipartisan Budget Act” law.

Congress will likely miss the Sept. 30th deadlines for passing a regular FY21 appropriations package, so we expect a Continuing Resolution to extend current funding past the election. NACWA continues working with appropriators to ensure public clean water sector funding builds on the positive gains made in recent fiscal years.

NACWA is incredibly grateful to all of our members for their tireless, essential work on the front lines each and every day to provide safe, reliable clean water services. As that essential work continues, we also appreciate your ongoing advocacy efforts during this time – including through participating in a virtual Water Week 2020, which reached unprecedented levels of utility engagement. Never has the clean water sector’s advocacy voice been more important in demonstrating the vital role the sector plays in providing communities across the country with the essential services they depend on daily.

Between COVID-19 relief/stimulus, infrastructure, WRDA, PFAS, and appropriations, the remainder of 2020 will remain incredibly busy on the clean water legislative front, especially with election year politics in the mix. NACWA stands ready to help ensure the voice of the water sector is heard louder than ever. 

  • Jason Isakovic, NACWA Legislative Director

Top Stories – COVID-19 Relief

Congress Weighs Next Steps on COVID-19 Relief

Since Congress’ passage in March of the third phase of COVID-19 relief, the CARES Act, and the U.S. Houses’ passage in May of its proposed fourth phase of COVID-19 relief, the Heroes Act (see summaries of both bills below) – Congressional action has slowed on reaching bipartisan, bicameral agreement to advance the next phase of relief.

The U.S. Senate leadership has made clear that it will not vote on the House’s Heroes Act in its current form. Some Republican Senate leaders as well as rank-and-file members, however, have indicated an openness to additional federal relief.

Senate leadership is considering how to proceed on subsequent phases by monitoring the economic recovery, public sentiment as we enter an election cycle, and the possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19 in the coming months. Unemployment numbers have been rebounding in recent weeks, providing further cause for the Senate to slow its next actions until after the Fourth of July. While action on further COVID-19 relief efforts is anticipated, the timeline may stretch across the Summer or Fall. 

In line with this evolving and fluid situation, it is critical that NACWA members continue to stay engaged as NACWA builds support for direct relief for public clean water agencies, assistance for water and sewer ratepayers, support for hazard pay for essential workers, and changes to finance and funding policies that will benefit utilities, ensure their eligibility for broader municipal funding programs and restore useful programs, including advance refunding.

During June and July, NACWA expects the Senate will be evaluating countless provisions for potential incorporation into its next relief bill, which would ultimately need to be conferenced with the House’s Heroes Act.

Stakeholder engagement continues to be timely and vital and NACWA urges all clean water agencies to engage with their Congressional delegations, whether for the first time or to circle back on earlier and ongoing communications.

Congress Passes Third Phase of Stimulus, the CARES Act; Water Left to Subsequent Phase

Looking back at the key COVID packages that have already passed, the White House and Congress worked around the clock in March to quickly pull together legislation and reach agreement on what was dubbed a “Phase Three” coronavirus stimulus legislative package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act. This massive package was signed into law March 27th.

NACWA and the broader water sector joined together in a formal request to Congress on March 23rd to aid water and wastewater utilities in overcoming the challenges posed by coronavirus. The letter came in the midst of an intense push to elevate the story of how the clean water sector is responding to the coronavirus, highlight key sector concerns from lost revenue to new workforce challenges, respond to Congressional and Agency inquiries, and set the stage for increased federal investment to advance clean water.

In the House’s proposal, the sector was successful in securing provisions that would have provided $1.5 Billion for water/wastewater ratepayer assistance to be provided via the established Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), as well as $1.5 Billion for the same need directed through the Children and Family Services Program. Both alternatives were debated by House and Senate staff as potential means of getting funding out the door quickly, but ultimately not included in the final deal.

Unfortunately, the final deal reached on the CARES Act also did not include direct relief for water and wastewater utilities. The final package focused mainly on four pillars advocated by Senate leadership: aid to small businesses, direct cash payments, loans to companies in distressed industries such as airlines, and money to fund the medical response.

Public Finance Provisions Included

In addition to advocating for water sector assistance specifically, NACWA has been working with local and state governmental partners to secure provisions to aid public sector entities. The final CARES Act includes several provisions that may provide public water utilities with economic assistance through two different pots of money.  

The first pot of money is under section 601 of the bill that provides $150 billion for state, tribes, and local governments for necessary expenditures incurred due to the coronavirus public health emergency. However, this section includes a provision requiring funding only to be directly available to units of local government with populations above 500,000 people.

The second pot of money is under section 4003 of the bill which provides $454 billion in liquidity to eligible businesses, states, and municipalities related to losses incurred as a result of coronavirus. This liquidity can be provided through loans, loan guarantees, and federal purchasing of financial obligations. This section does not have the same limitations and stipulations on local governments by size as in section 601.

Finally, of note in the Phase 3 bill, eligible recipients of small business loans under section 1102 are authorized to use their funds to pay utility bills, including water.

NACWA is also working with the public finance sector to urge Congress to consider financing tools to help address COVID-19. The Association joined a March 12th joint letter to Congress urging restoration of advance refunding, increasing access to capital, and restoring and expanding the use of direct-pay bonds. These ideas have not gained traction in COVID-19 relief phases but continue to be urged as part of the economic recovery and infrastructure discussions.

House Passes Its Phase Four Heroes Act, Includes Water Ratepayer Assistance; Water Sector Advocacy Continues

On Friday, May 15th the U.S. House of Representatives passed the latest round of COVID-19 stimulus legislation, signaling the start of the next phase of negotiations over additional federal relief to state and local governments. The House package was developed by the Democratic majority and passed largely along party lines. A corresponding Senate package has not yet been developed.

Democratic leadership is urging swift action of a major package of state and municipal relief and additional social services spending, on which they had previously agreed with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to pursue. While some Congressional Republicans also support such a package, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has pushed back on the idea that another major package is needed.

This House package totals $3 trillion in spending and features $1 trillion in assistance to state and local governments to address lost revenues as its centerpiece. The package also incorporates $1.5 billion in assistance for low-income water and sewer service ratepayers. These funds would be funneled through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) through the states and then directly to drinking water and clean water utilities.

NACWA has been advocating for such a program for years and has provided input to shape these provisions in a manner that would benefit clean water agencies over the past months and is pleased with their inclusion.

The directive to push such water ratepayer funding through HHS rather than other agencies, such as EPA, came from Congressional leadership, in consideration that this legislative package focused on helping individuals/households struggling during a time of crisis and in light of Congress wanting relief funds to be able to get out quickly through existing mechanisms where possible.  

The House package also incorporates provisions NACWA supports to ensure public sector employers can leverage payroll tax credits to provide enhanced sick leave, and provides assistance for hazard pay to essential workers.    

In conjunction with these developments, NACWA led an effort to author the sector-wide letter to Congressional leadership underscoring the broad water sector support for financial relief and additional Congressional attention to water. The letter provides an update on the sector’s asks and serves to underscore that our priorities are broadly shared across the sector.

The letter has been sent to all key Congressional leadership offices, committees of jurisdiction, and every individual Congressional office. However, NACWA continues to urge all utilities to be in touch with your Congressional delegation regarding these issues and priorities for your utility. Members are encouraged to use the sector letter in your Congressional outreach.

Federal Reserve Revises COVID-19 Municipal Lending Program Created in CARES Act, Includes More Eligible Entities

The Federal Reserve announced April 27 that it will expand the eligibility criteria for local governments regarding its purchase of municipal debt to help with cashflow challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Fed’s Municipal Liquidity Vehicle special purpose vehicle (SPV), which was authorized by Congress in late March in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to help with COVID-19 economic relief, will now accept borrowers from cities of at least 250,000 population and counties of at least 500,000.  The previous cutoff had been cities of 1 million and counties of 2 million.  This change expands eligibility to at least 185 new municipal entities across the nation. 

The SPV was created to enhance the liquidity of the short-term municipal securities market and provide eligible municipal entities with additional short-term cash flow to deal with lost revenue or additional expenses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The money received by municipalities under the program can be used to address BOTH lost revenue and additional expenses that are directly related to COVID-19, although NACWA does not have details on what information the Fed is requiring to substantiate claims made under the program. 

More information about the program can be found in this FAQ published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and in this information provided by PFM Financial Advisors.  NACWA members with questions about how this program might benefit them should consult their bond counsel.

It is important to note that municipal funding available through the Fed SPV is entirely distinct from the direct money made available for states and large cities in the CARES Act.  Those funds, which flow directly through the US Treasury, are only available to the largest cities and counties in the US and may only be used for additional costs incurred as a result of COVID-19 – the funds may NOT be used to address lost revenue. 

Eligible additional costs can include things like overtime, telecommuting costs, and additional personal protective equipment (PPE). Most of these funds have already been distributed to eligible municipal entities – if NACWA members fall under these eligible entities, they should engage with their municipal governance bodies to request access to the funds. 

Water Infrastructure Funding

Senate Committee Advances 2020 WRDA Package; $7.5 Billion Allocated for Wastewater

One of Congress’s priorities for 2020, prior to the pandemic, was to pass the biennial Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). On May 6th, as part of an effort to resume normal business, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works unanimously passed its version of a 2020 WRDA package, comprised of two bills, America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) and the Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020. These bills were crafted on a bipartisan basis by the Committee and enjoy broad support.

The draft legislation was released on April 21st and includes several top clean water priorities that NACWA has been advocating for over the past year. The legislation continues to build on the comprehensive approach of the 2016 and 2018 WRDA bills by encompassing a wide range of water infrastructure and policy needs. It is important to note that the WRDA legislation, which is scheduled to be passed every two years, is separate from the legislative efforts Congress and the water sector are working on as part of COVID-19 stimulus assistance. 

Key clean water provisions championed and supported by NACWA in the draft AWIA 2020 include:

  • Reauthorization of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) program at increased authorized levels over the current $1.6 billion appropriated amount. The draft provides for incremental increases of $2 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2021, $2.5 billion for FY 2022, and $3 billion for FY 2023, for a total of $7.5 billion over three years, which would authorize the largest increase ever (outside of the 2009 stimulus bill) for the CWSRF.

The drinking water bill does not include a DWSRF reauthorization, however it does include increased grant funding of $300 million through FY 2024 to assist in the remediation of contamination from emerging contaminants, with a focus on PFAS.

  • Reauthorization of the sewer overflow and stormwater reuse municipal grants program at increased levels of $250 million for FY 2021 and 2022, up from $225 million over the current authorized level.
  • Reauthorization of the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) through 2024 at the current core annual funding level of $50 million.
  • Reauthorization and increased funding for the Water Infrastructure and Workforce Investment competitive grant program to $2 million annually though FY 2024, up $1 million over the current authorized and appropriated level.
  • Establishing a Clean Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability program at $5 million annually though FY 2024 for grants to clean water utilities of all sizes to assist in the planning, design, construction, implementation, operation, or maintenance of a program or project to increase the resiliency or adaptability of water systems to natural hazards (non-federal cost-share of 25 percent).

This provision/program is modeled after a similar drinking water program established in WRDA 2018 and has been championed by NACWA on the clean water side.

  • Establishing a new wastewater infrastructure discretionary grant program within EPA to provide funding to clean water utilities that need assistance coming into compliance with federal regulations and laws or that need additional assistance in completing work because of a lack of full financing. Funding is authorized at $50 million annually for FY2021 to FY2024.
  • Establishing a new EPA pilot program to provide competitive grants to states to provide platforms for intrastate information sharing among communities regarding water quality, water infrastructure needs, and water technology.

While narrower and more targeted in scope, this provision is based on the ARPA-H2O  concept and legislation championed by NACWA and introduced in the House earlier this year. Grants for this program are authorized at $15 million annually through FY2024.

This provision also authorizes funds to assist states in the creation of multi-state consortia to exchange water data, share information regarding water practices, protocols, technologies and procedures, and to establish regional intended useplans.

  • Reauthorizing the Alternative Water Source Grants Pilot Program at $25 million per year from FY 2022 to FY 2024.
  • Establishing a stormwater infrastructure technology grant program to assist research institutions and institutions of higher education with research on new and emerging stormwater control technology. Grants are authorized at $10 million annually for FY 2022 and FY 2023.
  • Establishing an EPA pilot program to assist fifteen utilities with projects that create or improve waste-to-energy systems. This may be awarded to biosolids collections systems, anaerobic digesters, methane capture or transfer, and other emerging technologies that transform waste to energy.
  • Establishing an EPA program to provide grants to utilities or nonprofit organizations to cover the costs incurred from connecting a household to a municipal or private wastewater system. The program authorizes $20 million annually for FY 2021 and FY 2022.
  • Establishing a small and medium clean water utility circuit rider program to provide additional on-site technical assistance to owners and operators. Program grants are authorized at $10 million annually for FY 2021 to FY 2024.

NACWA submitted comments on the draft legislation which underscore that this is a robust bipartisan effort but that it does not address COVID-19 impacts to the sector.  

The next step for this 2020 WRDA package is consideration on the Senate Floor. Even in the best of circumstances, the timing of these large legislative packages reaching the Senate Floor is unpredictable. In these uncertain times, that trend is exacerbated.

Meanwhile, the House is still working to release its full 2020 WRDA package. The House’s WRDA 2020 process is slightly different in part due to the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s Clean Water Act jurisdiction and the Energy & Commerce Committee’s Safe Drinking Water Act jurisdiction.

The T&I Committee’s bipartisan Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2019, H.R. 1497, that passed the committee last year, will serve as the House’s clean water legislative basis during WRDA conference negotiations with the Senate this summer and fall. In the meantime, the T&I Committee is working with House leadership to bring H.R. 1497 before the full House for a vote.

NACWA looks forward to continuing engagement as the 2020 WRDA process evolves in the Senate and House.

Congress Considers FY21 Appropriations

NACWA continues to work closely with Members of Congress to secure key clean water funding and provisions in the annual Fiscal Year 2021 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill, which funds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

On March 3rd, NACWA submitted comprehensive FY21 clean water programmatic requests to Senate and House appropriators. NACWA submitted identical testimony to both the Senate and House requesting funding for important EPA clean water programs, including the SRFs, Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Control Grants, WIFIA, IP and the Municipal Ombudsman office, geographic watershed programs, and workforce grants among others.

NACWA has met with both Senate and House appropriations committee staff to discuss these FY21 requests further and ensure the public clean water sector continues to build on the positive gains made over the previous fiscal years. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testified before the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee on March 4th regarding the Agency’s proposed FY21 budget. NACWA worked with appropriations staff to ensure that during the hearing, members of the committee highlighted the importance of strong federal clean water funding.

Water Week Engages Over 1,000 Across the Sector

Water Week 2020, April 26th–May 2nd, was an incredibly successful week of education and advocacy that brought together thousands of water stakeholders from across the country to highlight the importance of clean, safe and reliable water.

The significance of Water Week was only underscored by the significant role the water sector is playing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Water Week 2020 involved webinars, congressional outreach, media coverage, social media campaigns, and many virtual gatherings – all to celebrate and advance the key role water plays in our Nation.

The centerpiece was the Water Week 2020 webinar, which hosted almost 1300 participants and featured remarks from senior members of EPA’s Office of Water, video messages from key Members of Congress, and presentations from leading groups in the water sector outlining the important steps they have taken to help elevate the importance of water during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The webinar also featured the results of the 5th annual Value of Water Poll and highlighted a list of key Water Week advocacy priorities signed on to by 13 Water Week partners.  Many state and regional water associations also hosted their own virtual events during Water Week to promote the importance of water and encourage their members to use available Water Week resources to advocate with Congress. 

In advance of Water Week, NACWA joined with the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the Water Research Foundation (WRF), and the WateReuse Association to host a webinar April 22 providing an update on key clean water sector advocacy issues. The webinar, which was recorded and is available online, also provided insights and tips for stakeholders to use in outreach to Congress on clean water issues. Thank you to WEF for hosting this webinar on behalf of the sector.

Additionally, Water Week featured an op-ed in The Hill, a well-read political publication popular on Capitol Hill, emphasizing the crucial importance of water services during the current public health outbreak and the need for federal support of the Nation’s public water and wastewater utilities.  In line with this was a one-pager distributed to Water Week participants outlining the immediate financial assistance needs for both drinking water and clean water utilities as a result of the pandemic, along with an estimate of the potential projects the water sector could initiate to help put Americans back to work if Congress embarks on an infrastructure investment package. 

Water Week also featured a sustained campaign on social media with content and  graphics to highlight the amazing work of the nation’s water sector workforce and utilities under the hashtag #WaterWeek2020.

NACWA thanks all of its members, and all of the Water Week partners and sponsors, for helping make Water Week 2020 such a success.  We look forward to seeing you all in person next year for Water Week 2021. 

NACWA-Championed Water Technology & Innovation Bill Introduced in House

On March 6th, legislation championed by NACWA was introduced in the US House of Representatives that would create a federal “Advanced Research Projects Agency – Water” (ARPA-H2O) within EPA to spur clean water research and innovation.

The bipartisan ARPA-H2O Act, H.R. 6113, was introduced by Reps. John Katko (R-NY) and Dan Kildee (D-MI). It would provide federal funding assistance to drinking water and clean water systems, private sector entities, academic research institutions, and nonprofit organizations that are developing innovative and technologically advanced methods to improve the treatment, monitoring, delivery, affordability and safety of drinking water and clean water.

The bill creates ARPA-H20 in a parallel model to that of the current and highly successful ARPA-Energy and Defense-ARPA to ensure that the public clean water utility sector has the research, innovation and technological tools to address the increasing and complex nature of clean water challenges in a cost-effective manner.

NACWA has been spearheading efforts on the bill for many months and was joined by several of its water sector partners and the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) in sending a strong letter of support for the bill and thanking Reps. Katko and Kildee for their work and leadership on this important issue.

NACWA and its partners will continue working with Congress to advance this bill through the legislative process and encourages its members to reach out to their respective Representatives to request they cosponsor H.R. 6113.


Federal Bills Reflect NACWA Input on Wipes, Plastics

The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, introduced in the Senate in February, became the first federal bill that would address the labeling of wipes. The bill seeks to limit waste from plastic products by phasing out unnecessary single-use plastic products, reducing plastic packaging, and holding manufacturers responsible for reducing plastic waste and recycling. Wipes are designed and used as a single-use product, and most wipes are made from plastics. 

Wipes have been a major focus of NACWA’s Toilets Are Not Trashcans campaign due to the problems caused when wipes are flushed into the sewer system. These problems include the clogging of pumps and other wastewater equipment and the formation of “fatbergs” when wipes combine with fats, oils and grease. 

NACWA worked with the California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA) and other organizations on the language in the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act to address the labeling of flushable and non-flushable wipes. The Act would require that all non-flushable wipes be labeled with a “Do Not Flush” logo according to the  2nd Edition Code of Practice: Communicating Appropriate Disposal Pathways for Nonwoven Wipes to Protect Wastewater Systems (COP), published by the wipes industry associations.

NACWA worked with the wipes associations and other water sector groups on this COP to ensure that the “Do Not Flush” logo would be prominently displayed on wipes packages and not camouflaged with the package artwork.

The Act would also require that all wipes labeled “flushable” meet the specifications of the International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG).  NACWA and CASA are members of the IWSFG, and the flushability specifications of the IWSFG require that wipes break down quickly and completely after flushing. In addition, the Act requires that wipes labeled “flushable” not contain any plastic or regenerated cellulose, a material that may not biodegrade easily in natural environments. 

The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act is an important first step towards addressing the wipes issue nationally. Legislation on wipes also appears to be gaining momentum in the States (see article directly below).

In a related development, in January 2020 the U.S. Senate unanimously passed bipartisan comprehensive legislation, S. 1982, the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act. This legislation is part of a comprehensive package aimed at reducing the prevalence of marine debris and trash in the nation’s waterways.

Among other provisions, the bill requires a Report to Congress from the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee on microfiber pollution. This report, to be completed within 2 years, would define microfiber pollution and assess its sources, recommend standardized methodology for its assessment, and provide recommendations for reducing microfiber pollution and for how federal agencies can work with stakeholders to address the issue.  

Save Our Seas 2.0 also establishes a Marine Debris Foundation and a Genius Prize to spur innovation in reducing plastic pollution in waterbodies. NACWA provided input to Congress during drafting and applauds Congress’s bipartisan work to advance the bill. NACWA will continue to track this and related proposals as they move forward.

Washington Becomes First State with Wipes Labeling Law

Washington State became the first state with a wipes labeling law on March 25, when Gov. Jay Inslee signed Washington’s HB 2565

The law requires “Do Not Flush” logos on non-flushable wipes, with language to specify the size, placement and contrast of the logo. The bill does not set a standard for using the term “flushable” on packaging, however. The bill passed through the legislature with overwhelming support, with votes of 36-10 in the Senate and 93-4 in the House. 

Washington’s law uses the labeling Code of Practice (2nd Edition) published by the wipes industry associations as the basis for the labeling guidelines. NACWA worked with the wipes associations and other water sector groups on this Code of Practice to ensure that the “Do Not Flush” logo would be prominently displayed on wipes packages.

However, wipes manufacturers are currently not following the Code of Practice instructions for size, placement and color contrast of the “Do Not Flush” logo. The Washington law provides additional specifications to prevent wipes manufacturers from trying to camouflage the logo with other package artwork. 

The law comes at a time when utilities are becoming increasingly concerned about the flushing of wipes and other consumer products that do not break apart as quickly as toilet paper. As the spread of COVID-19 results in more disinfection of surfaces with wipes and substitution of toilet paper with other products due to toilet paper shortages, some utilities are seeing more clogs from wipes and other flushed products. Local media has covered the problem extensively in the last two weeks, and many utilities are renewing their efforts to get the “Toilets Are Not Trashcans” message to their communities. 

NACWA will continue to work with its members and state associations to advance state legislation to address the wipes issue, and to increase public awareness of the issue. NACWA members interested in this issue may contact Cynthia Finley, NACWA’s Director of Regulatory Affairs.