Tuberville Leads Hearing as Ranking Member of Ag Subcommittee

Every American deserves access to water that is clean and safe to drink, and functioning wastewater systems to safely dispose of sewage and waste.”

WASHINGTON — Yesterday, U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) led a U.S. Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry (AG) Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy as Ranking Member. The hearing, titled “Rural Water: Modernizing our Community Water Systems” focused on ways to improve and modernize the various funding and technical assistance programs within the USDA Water and Environmental Programs division. Discussions throughout the hearing revolved around the 2023 Farm Bill and ensuring rural communities access the resources they need to achieve economic success, prosperity, and better health and educational outcomes, ensuring they are not left behind their urban counterparts.

Senator Tuberville opened the hearing with the following remarks:

“Every American deserves access to water that is clean and safe to drink and functioning wastewater systems to safely dispose of sewage and waste,” said Senator Tuberville.“It doesn’t matter where you live or what your background is, clean drinking water and sanitary waste disposal systems are a necessity that are directly linked to better health outcomes for all Americans… I will be looking for ways to modernize the regulatory environment at USDA so that water systems are able to safely serve all Americans while complying with regulations based on science, not politics or activism. We must find the delicate balance between updating and maintaining critical infrastructure, treating water to safe levels, preparing for natural disasters and cybersecurity threats, and maintaining a fiscal budget. I believe this Committee can find that balance.”

As Alabama’s voice on the AG Committee, Senator Tuberville is actively advocating for the state’s agricultural priorities in Farm Bill hearings. 

More excerpts from Senator Tuberville’s remarks can be found below, and the entire remarks can be viewed here and here

TUBERVILLE: “You know, the problem we’re having, obviously in the rural areas, too, is educate and get enough people educated to do the work in the rural areas. Urban areas are fine. You know, they’ll struggle, but we’re really struggling in the rural areas. I’m going to ask everybody this one question and you have 20 seconds or some more, just don’t make it long. If you’ve got a perspective on this what’s the most critical element in ensuring the operation of safe public drinking water supply? Rob, what do you think the most critical element is?”

WHITE: “I would say the most critical element would be your trained operators who have to oversee these systems. Actually, put in place [and] abide by all the regulations, and create the plans, and assess the system to make sure its rehabilitated when necessary and has a plan to move forward. It remains in compliance and within the regulatory bounds every day.”

TUBERVILLE: “Ms. Undesser?”

UNDESSER: “The most critical item as far as looking at safe public drinking water supply certainly is how do we think about water differently going forward? It’s a complex world and it’s only getting more complex as we’re sitting here right now. So, we really need to think differently and really leverage all of our solutions that are out there.”

TUBERVILLE: “Keep it simple, stupid, right? And that’s what we need. Ms. Flowers?”

FLOWERS: “I think that the most critical element for under-resourced and underserved communities is access to funding.”

TUBERVILLE: “Thank you, Mr. Duncan?”

DUNCAN: “The answer is definitely trained operators, but playing off of that a little bit is having the resources for those operators. Being able to give them technical assistance as well as being able to allow them to plan for how to manage and operate the infrastructure that they have to work with and keep in good condition. Whether it’s something that’s aging and knowing when to make those changes and having the investments to do so, or whether it’s understanding the risks, both cyber, climate and whatever, to be able to address the needs and create a sustainable water future.”

TUBERVILLE: “Thank you. Ms. Day?”

DAY: “I would add educated and informed board members who actually run the systems and make the decisions- that they’re informed about the technical aspects of running the wastewater and water systems.”

TUBERVILLE: “Thank you. Mr. White, 91% of our nation’s water systems serve communities with a population of less than 10,000. I said that in my opening statement. In Alabama, 75% of the people we serve are 10,000 or less. In your experience, what suggestions do you believe could improve program operations and services for small system operators? And don’t say money either. I don’t want to hear that.”

WHITE: “Well, that was the short answer, money. But one thing I would like to comment on is what is working now. What’s available under the farm bill and the resources that are that are being utilized, at least in the state of Alabama. We have three water circuit writers. We have two wastewater specialists, an energy efficiency technician, numerous training staff, all working together, [and] a source of water assessment person. They all work together every day within all of the rural communities in Alabama to put in place all of these resources and technical assistance. We meet regularly. Our partnerships with USDA, locally within the state, are strong. We meet quarterly with USDA, SRF, ADECA, other funding partners and provide technical assistance reports. And we really get around the table and hammer out all of the concerns for the water and wastewater systems in Alabama. Those partnerships are critical, and they really help bring everybody to the table and reduce work; we don’t duplicate work. That way we can find the targeted resources for those areas. So, to improve, I would say giving USDA more flexibilities. The financing options that were discussed in my written testimony, that would be critical in helping some of the rural, poor areas in Alabama, being able to have the 0% and 1% loans; refinancing options that would help ones at Uniontown that we’re working with on the West side of Alabama now. If we have that opportunity, additional authorities for addressing cybersecurity and more resources for emergency response would also be helpful.”

TUBERVILLE: “Ms. Day, can you answer that one? Either one of you, have at it.”

DUNCAN: “You know, I think the funding alternatives is definitely a way to do it when you’re looking at it without looking at additional moneys to throw in there. I do think a shift in the paradigm is critical in how we operate our facilities today. The run to failure mode is where we are at. So whatever abilities and resources can be put towards systems, especially those small systems, I think if you went and talk to any operator in any small system, in any state around the country, they would tell you what their problems are. They don’t have the capacity knowing what they know that needs to be addressed, the ability to go and address it. And so, continuing to promote the circuit writer program to help them find that path forward. Education to boards and education in promoting the value of water is also critical, because it is one of the cheapest utilities out there with the highest value in life. But yet, we undervalue it incredibly. So, anything along those lines, absent actual money, would be the way to go forward I think. And in helping to give those operators, as well as the system owners, which is the public, an understanding of how to create systems that will be more resilient going forward, will be more affordable to run. So, any of those tools in the toolbox that can be promoted within the USDA WEP programs are critical in my mind.”

TUBERVILLE: “I got one last question for all of you. Answer it kind of like the first one, kind of short. Let’s start with Ms. Day. All these natural disasters that we’re having, how do we prepare for those for a water system in your mind? I mean because we’re having more and more hurricanes, tornadoes. What we saw in Vermont this [last] week, it’s a disaster, and we have to have water. How do we how do we prepare for that?”

DAY: “So, we plan. I have to say that the USDA pre-development dollars are some for the really small, rural, disadvantaged systems are the only pre-development dollars that are available to them. And they can’t do a feasibility study without that. Vermont does a good job with SRF dollars getting out to those small communities, but not every state does. And they may have an idea of what to do to make their system better, but they need that $35,000 of pre-development to actually make a change in the system. Thank you.”

TUBERVILLE: “Mr. Duncan?”

DUNCAN: “The number one answer in my mind is stop fighting Mother Nature. And taking a look and understanding one of the things that is a real challenge – a lot of our systems are built in low land areas, at least in Vermont. So, it’s a real challenge that’s not going to change overnight but taking a look at what the risks and liabilities are associated with each of those different events that come at us. And then identifying paths to resiliency and redundancy is really the only way to move that forward as opposed to keep getting knocked down and standing back up and taking it on the chin again.”

TUBERVILLE: “Ms. Flowers?”

FLOWERS: “You know, I actually live in Tornado Alley in North Alabama.”

TUBERVILLE: “I know you do.”

FLOWERS: “We had a tornado last night. But I think that, first of all, planning in terms of dealing with resilience, we have to have resilient infrastructure. And I agree, we can’t build the way that we’ve built before and think things are going to change. Things are actually getting worse. So, building a more resilient system. Just an example of a system that was built – this is an urban area, and they didn’t prepare for the lights going out. And when the lights went out, then the wastewater treatment stopped and then the communities were flooded with raw sewage. So, I think we have to start looking at what we could probably do in terms of renewable energy, to use it as a backup energy source for when the power goes out to make sure that we can continue to have water and sanitation.” 

TUBERVILLE: “Ms. Undesser?”

UNDESSER: “Thank you. Absolutely, echo the resiliency planning. That’s number one. I would add on to the emergency planning as well, and making sure that those emergency plans leverage all solutions that are available. And again, that we think differently about it rather than just kind of staying in the lane. But how do we leverage all of the solutions that are available to us?”


WHITE: “Well, I would say training and partnerships. We need to continue to train. It’s ongoing. There are new resources and regulations that come around, you know, each year. So, making sure that, plus the workforce is changing, so new folks get into those administrative positions, making sure they are aware of what’s available to them. And then partnerships with, not only federal and state agencies and resources, but do you know your neighbor’s system? Do you have mutual aid agreements with those? Do you know your access to resources for our associate members, companies that are in the state that can maybe go ahead and prepare a contract for service during an emergency, so you can lock in prices and ensure that you have a number of items available to you during that time. So, that’s what I would say, training and partnerships.” 

Senator Tommy Tuberville represents Alabama in the United States Senate and is a member of the Senate Armed Services, Agriculture, Veterans’ Affairs, and HELP Committees.