Investment in water emerges as top issue for Biden campaign

By Miranda Willson | 02/27/2024 01:36 PM EST

Talking up clean water could help President Joe Biden in swing states by shifting the focus away from contentious energy issues.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks.

Vice President Kamala Harris, shown Feb. 3, 2023, at Belmont Water Treatment Plant in Philadelphia, was in Pennsylvania again last week to promote Biden administration efforts on clean water and water infrastructure. Patrick Semansky/AP

As Republicans slam President Joe Biden’s policies on electric vehicles and natural gas, the White House is flaunting progress and steering attention to a less polarizing environmental issue: clean water.

The Biden administration has touted its credentials on water issues, with Vice President Kamala Harris stopping last week in Pittsburgh to highlight billions in federal funding to make drinking water safer and improve water infrastructure.

It was the third time in two years that the vice president visited the swing state to call for an end to lead pipes, which have caused major public health crises in cities like Newark, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan.


But unlike her last visit to Pittsburgh in 2022, Harris had more to report this time, including an EPA proposal to require the removal of all lead pipes within a decade. The infrastructure law of 2021, championed by the White House, also included the largest federal investment ever in drinking water needs. That money is now flowing to all 50 states.

“As you heard, I was in Pittsburgh not very long ago,” Harris told the crowd during her visit to Steel City. “Since that meeting, we have now made investments that have resulted in this city being able to replace more than 3,000 lead pipes, to the benefit of more than 10,000 people.”

Clean water frequently ranks as Americans’ top environmental concern, according to various polls. The topic could resonate particularly well in swing states that Biden must win to get reelected in November, political analysts said.

The ongoing megadrought in the Southwest poses an existential threat to states like Nevada and Arizona, while communities in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have faced high-profile water crises from lead and chemical contamination.

“It is really such a tangible issue,” said Helen Kalla, a senior director at the consulting firm Lot Sixteen who worked on Harris’ presidential campaign in 2019. “You turn your faucet on and see the water coming out. It’s a way that people can really see the results of investment, or lack thereof.”

The administration’s water initiatives come at a critical time for the Biden campaign. With some polls showing Biden neck-and-neck against former President Donald Trump in November, the White House is trying to appeal to young voters who want more action on environmental issues — without driving away independents and other key constituencies.

The balancing act was on full display last week. POLITICO reported that the administration was considering changing a proposed rule to scale up electric vehicles, out of fear that it could spur backlash in Michigan, the center of the U.S. auto industry.

Trump, the likely Republican nominee, has repeatedly gone after Biden’s attempts to get Americans to drive electric cars. Some Democrats also worry that the administration’s decision to pause new natural gas exports could turn off voters in oil- and gas-rich Pennsylvania.

For its part, the Biden administration says its energy and climate initiatives — including the litany of clean energy tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act — are wins for consumers and job creation, in addition to helping address climate change.

Still, in many communities, funding for water and water infrastructure may prove “more salient,” said Barry Rabe, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.

“You have Donald Trump coming to my state a lot. He always talks about EVs,” Rabe said. “I don’t think he comes endorsing support for repealing lead abatement.”

‘Pretty safe territory’ for Biden

Voters’ appetite for clean water was affirmed in the buildup to this month’s competitive special election in Long Island, said Madeleine Foote, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters.

When canvassers with the environmental organization hit the ground before the election, they repeatedly encountered voters who, unprompted, voiced concerns about flooding, extreme weather and water quality, Foote said. In a pollconducted on behalf of LCV, more than 70 percent of voters in the New York swing district said that removing lead from drinking water was an important issue factoring into their vote.

Democrat Tom Suozzi, for whom the group was canvassing, ultimately beat Republican Mazi Pilip. If the race was any indication of how Americans will vote in November, it makes sense for the Biden administration to continue talking about water, Foote said.

“When you’re talking about what voters want from their elected officials, they want to see them focused on real issues, the kitchen table issues that they care about,” she said. “I would anticipate more events where [the administration] continues to highlight investments like these.”

Biden’s clean water rules haven’t been without critics. Water utilities have warned that a pending EPA rule to require the removal of “forever chemicals” from drinking water could force them to raise water bills. Environmental advocates, meanwhile, have said that EPA hasn’t acted quickly enough to protect the public from PFAS, which have been linked to a litany of health problems and don’t easily break down in the environment.

EPA is also facing a deadline this spring for finalizing regulations to ensure that a potential GOP-controlled Congress and White House cannot easily undo them. The new rule geared toward eliminating all lead pipes, however, isn’t expected to be finalized until the fall.

Nonetheless, rallying around clean drinking water remains “pretty safe territory” for the Biden campaign, said Mike McKenna, an energy lobbyist who served as an adviser in the Trump administration.

“If you think of one thing that there [is] a lot of bipartisanship around, it would be ideas like, ‘Hey, we should make sure our water utilities have whatever they need to make sure we continue to have the cleanest water on the planet. And we should do something about lead in pipes,’” McKenna said.

Infrastructure and racial justice

Environmental advocates also see clean water — and lead contamination in particular — as an area where the Biden administration could draw a contrast with Trump.

In 2019, EPA under Trump issued a regulation requiring water providers to respond more quickly to lead contamination and mandating lead testing in schools for the first time. It was the first update to the Lead and Copper Rule in nearly 30 years.

Yet critics pointed out that the Trump-era changes also slowed down the timeline for which utilities would need to remove lead pipes. Lead is a neurotoxin that poses dangerous health risks to children and adults.

“While it’s true that EPA was probably slow to react and move on [lead] during the latter stages of the Obama administration, by no means did the Trump administration distinguish itself as a real leader on these issues,” said Rabe of the University of Michigan.

Harris’ stop in Pittsburgh was part of the administration’s “Investing in America” tour, through which the White House is trying to showcase its economic and infrastructure wins in communities across the U.S. — and perhaps draw another contrast with Trump. A goal of the visits seems to be to “demonstrate that the government can work effectively,” David Darmofal, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, said in an email.

“There had been much discussion in the Trump administration about improving infrastructure, but this did not happen,” Darmofal said in an email.

Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung did not respond to a request for comment.

While Biden has traveled the country to discuss infrastructure, Harris has long been the administration’s water wonk. In addition to lead pipes, she’s taken on global water security issues and the Western drought.

Especially now, Harris could be an important asset for the campaign amid concerns about waning support among young voters and voters of color. Harris has ranked more favorably than Biden with Black voters in some recent polls, and she is generally popular with young people, Darmofal said.

“She has been very smart to take granular issues, go to communities and talk with them about those issues, from clean water to abortion to voting rights,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist and co-founder of Evergreen Action, a climate advocacy group. “[She’s] taking it from the 30,000-foot level and bringing it to people’s doorsteps.”

When taking the stage in Pittsburgh last week, Harris was introduced by city clerk Kimberly Clark-Baskin, who hails from the predominantly Black neighborhood of Homewood and spoke of her family’s experience with lead poisoning. Americans of color are disproportionately at risk of lead exposure, making the issue both a public health matter and a racial justice concern.

Prior to getting her home remediated for lead paint, Clark-Baskin and her family members experienced frequent headaches, breathing problems and other health issues, she said in an interview.

Having met Harris during her previous Pittsburgh visit in 2022, Clark-Baskin said she was touched to see the vice president return to Pittsburgh to “get a progress update” on lead pipes and paint.

“The money they’ve allocated for Pennsylvania to get the lead lines removed, it’s definitely a great starting point,” she said. “Nobody wants to drink contaminated water.”