September 20, 2023

Wyden Urges Action on the Drinking Water Access Emergency

Watch a video of Water and Power ENR Subcommittee Chair Wyden deliver his opening remarks here

As prepared for delivery

Over 2 million Americans are going to bed each night without access to safe and reliable drinking water by their bed. This is bad news for vulnerable seniors and bad news for our kids' futures. We can do better. And we must do better. 

This problem is worsened by the devastating drought that has hit so much of America. And, it’s hard to figure out who’s in charge of water all together. Several federal agencies share the responsibility to respond to the water access emergency. 

In my state and across the county, one person is in charge of managing water quality, one person is managing water quantity, and another is looking at affordability - it can be hard to figure out who is in charge! Sometimes one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing. And picture this, it’s going on in scores of communities across the country! This needs to be fixed. 

Today’s hearing is part of a fresh strategy in the Senate to collaboratively tackle challenges with drinking water access. In a sentence, we’re each putting an oar in the water to move toward a solution. In the spirit of collaboration, my good friends Senator Padilla from the Environment and Public Works Committee and Senator Schatz, Chair of the influential Indian Affairs Committee, are also holding hearings this month with drinking water access as the focus. And we are fortunate to have the counsel of Mr. Water Quality himself, Senator Tom Carper.

It’s time to identify solutions that span Congressional committees and all levels of government. I look forward to talking about this with my Republican colleagues. 

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, the Senate has set aside an incredible amount of funding to address water access and drought, including $550 million to the Department of Interior for drinking water systems for disadvantaged communities. Now it’s time to figure out how we’re going to use that money to make people’s lives better. Step one is knowing the scope of the problem. 

There is no one central agency charged with collecting data on all aspects of water access. It’s hard to believe that in 2023 our country doesn’t even have some basic facts about the key issues to improve water quality like who has indoor plumbing that works. We need timely data on the scope of the problem so we can respond with targeted resources and solutions. That’s why I’ve called on the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Interior to work together to quantify areas where investment in water is needed - we need to measure what matters and this couldn’t matter more.


I’m pleased we have a witness from the Tribe here today, Chairman Smith, who can share his perspectives on water access. 

Access to safe drinking is a problem I’ve seen firsthand when I am home in Oregon - there are far too many communities and families falling through the cracks. In Morrow and Umatilla Counties, residents are dealing with nitrate-contaminated well water. In Prineville in Central Oregon, well owners are facing challenges with manganese contamination, sometimes so bad it is clogging the pipes. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Central Oregon has made significant progress on drinking water security with funding I fought to secure, but the community has repeatedly had to issue boil water notices because of aging infrastructure. 

In addition to water quality issues there are water quantity issues.

In the Klamath Basin, wells used for drinking water are drying up and folks must rely on bottled water deliveries to survive. This Committee has received a letter from a well owner in the Klamath Basin whose well has run dry, and also written testimony from the Oregon Water Resources Department that explains more of these challenges across Oregon. 

About a quarter of Oregonians rely on wells for their drinking water supplies, making this problem all the more pressing back home. 

Drinking water access issues are not isolated to well users in rural communities. Water utilities and the communities that rely on them are feeling the stress of strained water supplies and are calling for more investment. Delayed maintenance and repairs can result in higher costs for the consumer and can translate to significant water affordability challenges. 


Today in this committee we will examine the drinking water crisis through the lens of drought. Recent western droughts have been worsened by climate change, and we can’t ignore its impacts on drinking water. It exacerbates issues for both water quality and quantity. Drought can also limit availability of water for the environment, recreation, hydropower, and irrigation. Farmers across the state of Oregon and the nation are wrestling with drought. 

It is my hope that today will shine a light on how all our water systems are connected, and that it is important to manage water from source to tap and for all benefits and purposes.

Today we will also examine the role that the Department of the Interior can play in responding to drinking water access and water availability challenges. I was particularly pleased to see Congress provide $550 million for domestic water supply projects for disadvantaged communities to the Bureau of Reclamation under the Inflation Reduction Act. We want to know; where is that money going and when? How can we get this money to the people that need it most? 

Everyone deserves safe, affordable, and reliable access to water, full stop. As the threat of drought continues to grow, it is critical to identify solutions that have support from those with the most at stake. 

I look forward to hearing from these witnesses about the scope and scale of water access and availability problems so that Congress is equipped to develop targeted responses.