WASHINGTON—Following catastrophic flooding that damaged water systems throughout Vermont, Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) convened a hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Rural Development and Energy Subcommittee today to discuss the growing challenges our rural water systems as climate change progresses.
Joined by witnesses Jennifer Day, Director of Development at RCAP Solutions, Joseph Duncan, Professional Engineer at Champlain Water District/Green Mountain Water Environment Association, and Catherine Coleman Flowers, Founder and CEO at The Rural Center for Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Sen. Welch stressed the disproportionate impact of climate change on water systems in rural and low-income communities and communities of color.
“In far too many communities in this country, access to clean water isn’t a guarantee, and that’s particularly true for communities of color, low-income communities, and more rural parts of this country.,” said Sen. Welch. “Last week, Vermonters saw firsthand how rural water systems can be upended by extreme weather. We will recover. But today’s testimonies and the ongoing impacts of storms and flooding in Vermont have made one thing clear: our vulnerable water systems need support. We must take steps to strengthen rural water systems and ensure every American can access clean water, even in times of extreme weather.”
“I sincerely hope that the subcommittee will consider the improvements to the Rural Decentralized Water Systems Reauthorization Act we discussed today. It’s clear to me that the current assistance for on-site sanitation must be expanded and improved, especially in the form of manufacturers’ and installers’ warranties for a minimum of 10 years,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers. “I am pleased that the Senate is taking seriously the injustice that comes from failing water and wastewater infrastructure all over the country. I look forward to continuing these important conversations, which I hope will soon lead to lasting solutions for rural Americans.”
Excessive rainfall has caused significant flooding in Vermont, with some parts of the state experiencing 9 inches of rain fall in just 48 hours. The storm exacerbated existing challenges to aging water and wastewater infrastructure in the state, and many towns are now under boil water notices following damage to their drinking water supply. At least one wastewater system was entirely flooded, forcing staff to evacuate and prompting the town to cut power to the plant.
Vermonters are not alone in these challenges: an estimated 2.2 million people lack access to basic water services in their home, with environmental justice communities experiencing the greatest impact. A 2019 study found that Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing, and Black and Latino households are twice as likely to lack complete plumbing. Climate change, which increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather conditions like storms and drought, will only make these communities and their water and wastewater systems more vulnerable.
The Senate Agriculture Committee maintains jurisdiction over the United States Department of Agriculture, whose Rural Utilities Service can provide key technical assistance, grants, and loans to rural communities working to construct or improve water and wastewater systems. As chair of the Committee’s subcommittee on Rural Development, Sen. Welch is committed to advancing additional funding for these essential programs, protecting existing funding, and furthering an approach centered in climate resilience and environmental justice.