This week we’re continuing our review of the states that identified water topics at the top of their lists of issues most important to voters in 2015, according to the recently issued second edition of CQ Roll Call’s 50 State Project. As we mentioned last week, the report contains a comprehensive listing and analysis of the issues that got the most attention in state legislatures in 2015, based on extensive interviews with local reporters about their coverage of state legislative sessions earlier this year.
Vermont – Lawmakers in Vermont took significant action to address water quality in 2015. The legislature wrote new regulations for farms, commercial developments, and homeowners in an attempt to reduce the impact of agricultural and storm runoff on water quality. But even as state officials direct new money and resources to water quality efforts across the state, Vermont communities are struggling with crumbling pipes and other water infrastructure that is more than a century old. The state was forced to contend with a rash of water main breaks during last winter’s brutal cold, with some water system officials saying they were facing the worst water main problems in 15 years. And as recently reported by Vermont Public Radio, 130 year-old pipes are causing major problems, but officials don’t have the resources to replace them. The story cited a sewage leak that took place in Rutland in early August, causing a plume of sewage that ran for miles down the city’s East Creek. The leak was caused by a pipe attempted to be sealed off in the 1970s; the seal failed and sewage slowly made its way into the closed pipe. According to Rutland’s Commissioner of Public Works Jeff Wennberg, some of the pipes that carry drinking water to Vermont homes and businesses were installed before Abraham Lincoln was elected, and even newer ones are failing. The report makes clear that Rutland isn’t alone, and that Vermont residents are suffering from aging infrastructure across the state. The state’s combined sewer systems (designed to collect both sewage and stormwater) are also old and crumbling, causing raw sewage to be dumped into streams when overwhelmed by stormwater. Communities throughout the state have experienced this type of contamination but lack the funds to address the problem. It is no wonder that water infrastructure was cited among Vermont’s top five most pressing issues in 2015.
Montana – For the second consecutive year, the Montana state legislature and Governor failed to agree on a bill to fund water, sewer, and road projects, disappointing residents in desperate need of infrastructure projects to address inadequate water and sewer grids in the eastern part of the state. The state has over 5,300 miles of water distribution and transmission piping, and roughly 700 public water systems, more than 20% of which are reportedly out of compliance with monitoring and other regulatory requirements. Some systems have piping dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, and most experience major leaks several times a year. The state also has approximately 180 public wastewater treatment systems, and one in five of those are under formal enforcement actions to correct system deficiencies. Montana’s most recent infrastructure report card gave drinking water systems a grade of C-, and wastewater systems a grade of D+. The state has identified $822 million in drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years, and $587 million in wastewater infrastructure needs over that period. As a result, Montana cited infrastructure and water issues third among the issues garnering the most attention in 2015.
Texas – Texas has experienced booming growth in recent years (estimated at roughly 2 million people in the last four years), increasing the strain on water infrastructure needs. And historically hot and dry conditions in the last several years have drained water supplies and emptied reservoirs in many areas, so new water supply projects are desperately needed. Of the state’s growth-propelled infrastructure challenges, water is considered the most pressing. In 2013 Texas voters approved a $2 billion state water bond to help defray the borrowing costs on large-scale water infrastructure projects, including creating reservoirs, laying new pipelines, and replacing older ones, but the state estimates that it will still need a total of $53 billion to implement plans to meet water needs for the next 50 years. Accordingly, Texas ranked infrastructure and water in the top three of the state’s most high profile issues this year.
Utah – According to the CQ Roll Call report, demographers forecast the population in Utah to double to 5.4 million residents by 2050. In an attempt to prepare for future water use demands, legislators considered a variety of ways to pump funding into ambitious new water projects, including a controversial Lake Powell Pipeline, which would send water 140 miles from the Colorado River to the state’s southwest corner, at a cost of at least $1 billion. But little progress was made in identifying sources of such funding, exposing concerns about residents’ future water supply and the state’s aging infrastructure. As a result, water was ranked fourth among the state’s most prominent issues in 2015.
EPA Conducting Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey
The EPA is conducting its sixth national survey of drinking water systems’ capital investment needs. These surveys, conducted every four years, collect data from water systems eligible to receive Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) funds regarding their 20-year capital improvement needs. Data from the surveys are used to develop formulas used by Congress to allot SRF grants to each state based on their identified needs. To visit the 2015 Needs Survey website for more information, click here.