Legislation Introduced to Help States Rehabilitate Clean Water and Drinking Water Facilities  

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Administration’s Proposed 2017 Budget:  “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul” on Water Infrastructure Funding

Given President Obama’s rhetoric on the Flint, Michigan water crisis, we at CWC are bitterly disappointed by the details of his administration’s proposed 2017 budget, released last week, which cuts the EPA’s water infrastructure funding by roughly a quarter billion dollars.

The EPA’s State Revolving Fund (SRF) provides loans to improve state and local water quality and is the primary source of federal funding for water infrastructure improvements. The 2017 budget does propose to increase by $158 million the Drinking Water SRF, which is good news. That money would help cities like Flint repair and replace old and crumbling water infrastructure. The bad news is that the budget also proposes a nearly $400 million cut to the Clean Water SRF. Those funds are used to build water treatment facilities, storm water infrastructure, and other projects that make water sources (such as the Flint River, for example) cleaner overall – by reducing urban runoff pollution, improving wastewater treatment, and paying for research on how the  chemicals in our water supply affect human health.

Particularly in light of the devastating health crisis unfolding in Flint, the proposed cuts have provoked criticism from many: Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he was “grossly disappointed” by the proposal, while Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works,  accused Obama of prioritizing climate change over water. Mae Wu, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, equated the proposed budget with “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” “Cutting funds that help keep pollution out of our water,” she recently wrote “and moving the money to remove pollution once it’s already in our drinking water is no solution at all. At best it is a short-term band-aid approach to addressing the chronic levels of underinvestment in our water infrastructure by local, state, and federal government.”

We have reported extensively here on the gross underfunding of our nation’s water infrastructure, and how federal water infrastructure spending has been stagnant in recent years despite the increasingly acute need of local communities like Flint for federal help in this area. The 2017 budget is yet another example of this disparity, and we at CWC will be lobbying hard to redress this imbalance.

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N.J. Legislators Outline Legislation to Avert Other “Flints”

On Monday U.S. Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, together with Congressman Bill Pascrell, outlined federal legislation designed to prevent another Flint-like water crisis.

“Flint has taught us all that ignoring our aging water infrastructure has dire consequences,” Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “We’ve under-invested in our infrastructure, certainly we’ve underinvested in water systems, and now we’re paying the price.”

The proposal, called the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Act (SWIA), would stimulate billions in private sector investment in large-scale repairs and upgrades to water and wastewater systems. Significantly, the legislation would revise the federal tax code to exempt private activity bonds (PABs) used for water and wastewater projects from the volume cap enforced by the IRS. The Clean Water Council has supported this legislation each time it has been introduced in the past. Removing water projects from beneath the volume cap for PABs would open the door for greater financing by the private sector.

Senator Menendez and Representative Pascrell have introduced the SWIA in each of the past four Congresses, but agreed to reintroduce it now following the public health crisis confronting Flint, Michigan (the subject of our post two weeks ago). Senator Menendez also succeeded in getting the PAB amendment through the Senate as part of a 2012 Transportation bill, but that change never made it into law.

The lawmakers announced the bill on the grounds of Suez North America, a Hackensack, New Jersey water company that supports private investment in water infrastructure projects. Suez executive vice president Robert Iacullo commented that many water system pipes in New Jersey are several decades old, with some surpassing 70 years.” A water main breaks every two minutes in the United States,” he said. “We know that cities across New Jersey and across our nation need high levels of investment. And that’s why we support the swift passage of this important legislation.”

Booker (D-N.J.) said that financing critical water infrastructure upgrades through private investment will “create jobs, spur economic growth and  most importantly protect the health and safety of our communities.” Pascrell (D-NJ) noted that  about a quarter of the treated water in the United States is lost as it travels to homes and businesses due to burst pipes.”Fixing these aging systems is a pressing need and upgrades can help alleviate threats to public health,” he said.

There are cities across the country like Flint that simply cannot afford the cost of the major repairs needed to avert water contamination and catastrophe. The federal government must intervene or more communities will suffer from neglect. The CWC will lobby vigorously for swift passage of the SWIA and will keep you advised on our progress.

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Some Positive Developments

This week we are pleased to report on two positive recent developments. First, in a speech to the nation’s mayors last Thursday, President Obama indicated that the federal government will be spending more money this year to help local governments improve their water systems. About $80 million will go to Michigan immediately to help improve the situation for residents of Flint, Michigan, the subject of last week’s post. Obama said the additional money for cities came as a result of the bipartisan budget agreement that Congress passed in December. States will be able to use the federal funding to make low-cost loans to local governments for drinking water and wastewater construction projects.

Second, on February 21 California Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced the draft of a new bill designed to provide short-term water supplies to drought-stricken California and long-term investments in drought resiliency throughout the Western United Sates. The bill would push federal agencies to send the largest amount of water possible south within the confines of existing environmental laws, and includes $1.3 billion in funding for desalination, water storage, water recycling, and grants to help communities most at risk for running out of water.

“This bill will not satisfy every water interest in the state,” Feinstein said, “but we have tried mightily to listen and absorb commentary from interested parties. The bill reflects many meetings between Democrats and Republicans, water districts, cities, rural communities, farmers, fishermen and a number of environmental groups.”

This good news is somewhat tentative – it is unclear exactly how much additional federal money will in fact be made available to cities this year, and Senator Feinstein’s bill is in draft form and will have to overcome many legislative obstacles before it becomes law – but we at CWC are cautiously optimistic and will, as always, be working hard to see that these funding initiatives materialize for the good of our nation’s communities.

 

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Update on Flint: Crisis Illustrates Dire Need for Water Infrastructure Funding in Our Cities

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EPA Survey Shows $271 Billion Needed for Nation’s Wastewater Infrastructure

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Syracuse: Daily Water Main Breaks Posing Monumental Problems

Today we begin our year’s coverage of the numerous and varied water infrastructure challenges faced by local communities in states all over the U.S. by highlighting the situation in Syracuse, New York.

Syracuse experienced 372 water main breaks in 2015 – more than one every day – and so far in 2016, nearly two a day. The age of the city’s water pipes, most of which are more than 100 years old and some of which were built in the 19th century, plus the extreme cold the region experienced in the last couple of years combined to cause a record-breaking number of breaks in 2014 and 2015, and the pace is expected to continue. The city’s mayor Stephanie Miner recently said that if the city had an extra billion dollars, she would use it to replace all 550 miles of water mains that continue to burst all year. Replacing those pipes is estimated to cost $726 million.

These water main breaks have proven enormously disruptive. Restaurants and other commercial businesses, offices, and schools have been forced to close, residents have had to boil water before drinking due to contamination, and commuters and other residents have confronted road closures and detours on a regular basis. One break that forced the closure of two city streets affected graduation ceremonies at Fayetteville-Manlius High School in June last year.

Mayor Miner has asked New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for State assistance in coming up with money for needed repairs, but no State aid has yet materialized, and both Miner and and U.S. Congressman Paul Tonko have called on the federal government to make more resources available to cities to support water infrastructure. Unfortunately Syracuse is just one of thousands of local localities in desperate need of those federal resources, and we at CWC will keep pushing to see that they are directed towards those communities in the year ahead.

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Triumph: Congress Allows Use of Tax-Exempt Bonds with WIFIA Loans!

We are delighted to begin our 2016 weekly posts by reporting on a triumph for CWC and all those like us who are committed to greater funding for our nation’s water infrastructure!

We devoted several 2015 posts to discussing our efforts lobbying for a repeal of the ban on using tax-exempt bonds to finance projects under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). Those efforts finally paid off when Congress included in the transportation funding law passed last month (known as the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act) a provision lifting the ban, releasing the flow of desperately needed federal funds for critical water infrastructure projects all over the country.

In repealing the ban, Congress heard our call to remove a significant obstacle to WIFIA’s loan program, which was set up in June 2014 to provide low-cost loans to a broad range of large water infrastructure projects. Specifically, the five-year, $350 million program allows utilities to borrow up to 49% of the costs for large drinking water, wastewater, stormwater and water reuse projects.

Given our country’s enormous water infrastructure investment needs (we have reported before on the nearly $2 trillion estimated to be needed over the next 25 years to restore our deteriorating water and wastewater infrastructure and expand our water systems), we at CWC are gratified, and we are optimistic that 2016 will see further progress along these lines.

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Reflections on 2015 and Looking Ahead to 2016

As we reflect on 2015, the Clean Water Council would like to take a moment to express our appreciation for water infrastructure. Without it, we could not be the prosperous nation we are. Without water infrastructure we could not make foods we enjoy, help the sick become healthy in our hospitals, protect our homes and businesses from fires, produce or manufacture goods, or provide our people, businesses and country the opportunity to grow. Throughout 2015, you read here all the ways in which water infrastructure affects our lives and, most disturbingly, all the ways this country’s leadership has failed its citizens by continuing to ignore the vast impacts of a deteriorating and aging water infrastructure system. Clean Water Weekly published news stories of the failures resulting from this neglect from all 50 states, proving how the broad severity of this problem touches every American. Over the course of 52 weeks, you read on this blog an incredibly wide range of issues concerning the deterioration of our water infrastructure.

Fortunately, we’ve been able to report some good news and signs of improvement. We’ve written about a few law changes on the federal level, several state-based initiatives to finance new water infrastructure projects, and reports of projects being undertaken to repair, replace, or construct new water infrastructure. We’ve grown the following of this blog by several multiples, indicating a growing interest in pertinent, reliable information about water infrastructure developments. Continuing to heighten awareness of our country’s critical need to address our crumbling water infrastructure will remain CWC’s top priority in 2016.

In the coming year, CWC will continue to mobilize support for investing in water infrastructure. We will continue to be a champion on Capitol Hill. We will continue to seek greater investment in water infrastructure, whether by innovative financing mechanisms like Private Activity Bonds, or through more traditional avenues of funding such as appropriations for the EPA’s State Revolving Fund. We will continue to bring you weekly updates on water infrastructure failures, investments, and developments.

CWC wishes all of our Clean Water Weekly subscribers a safe, healthy, and joy-filled Christmas and New Year’s. It has been our privilege to keep you informed on clean water issues this year, and we look forward to doing the same in 2016. Happy holidays!

 

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State Approaches to Water Infrastructure Challenges, Cont.

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