By Patrick Crow
A pilot water project, fire hydrants and the "the nuclear option" were at the forefront of Washington water issues late last fall.
The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) was on the brink of success, or failure, as a House-Senate conference committee began work on the multi-billion dollar Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization bill.
The Senate-passed WRDA bill - but not the House version - contains WIFIA language. WIFIA would establish a $50 million/year pilot program offering low-interest loans for water and wastewater infrastructure projects, mostly those costing at least $20 million. The demonstration program would be apart from the state revolving funds for federal water grants.
Eleven water and municipal groups made a final push for WIFIA passage, including the American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), the Water Environment Federation, the Water and Sewer Distributors of America, the National Ground Water Association, and the WaterReuse Association.
The groups reminded congressmen that WIFIA would supplement, not replace, the revolving funds while providing a mechanism allowing utilities access to lower‐cost capital.
"If a utility can save just two percentage points on the interest rate for a 30‐year loan, that results in a savings of 25 percent in the financing costs of a project. This in turn will allow local resources to go further, accelerating critically-needed water infrastructure investment and lowering costs," they said.
Dan Hartnett, AMWA legislative affairs director, said, "WIFIA has a lot of support in both chambers of Congress, but so far we have seen no firm assurances that it will be included in the final bill."
On the regulatory front, water associations were scrambling to counteract the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) unexpected interpretation of its lead in drinking water rule.
On Oct. 22, the EPA effectively included fire hydrants in the definition of "pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures" covered in the regulations implementing the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act of 2011. The rules take effect Jan. 4, 2014. EPA's rationale was that hydrants might be used to supply potable water in emergencies.
Water utilities complained that because they typically keep several months worth of replacement fire hydrants in stock, they could be stuck with those inventories after the Jan. 4 deadline. Furthermore, they said they would be unable to replace hydrants after that date until rule-compliant hydrants could be manufactured, purchased and delivered.
A coalition of water groups promptly urged EPA to delay the implementation of the rulemaking with respect to hydrants. They argued that Congress had intended the law to apply only to pipes and plumbing fixtures that normally deliver potable water.
With bipartisan support, a bill blocking the rule was introduced in the House of Representatives. "Neither Congress nor the water utility community expected the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act to apply to fire hydrants," said AMWA executive director Diane VanDe Hei. "In fact, the bill was based upon a California state law that has been interpreted to exclude hydrants."
In early December, the House unanimously passed the bill exempting fire hydrants. At the time of writing, the legislation is awaiting passage by the Senate.
And finally, "the nuclear option" was Senate slang for a drastic change in its rules to allow the confirmation of executive and judicial nominees (excluding those for the Supreme Court) by a simple 51-vote plurality rather than a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority.
Senate Democrats pushed through the rule change because, they said, Republicans were blocking President Barack Obama's nominees for purely political reasons.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said there have been 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations in the history of the Senate - and half of those have occurred during the Obama administration.
Reid specifically cited the case of Ken Kopocis, Obama's nominee to head EPA's Office of Water. He said Kopocis's nomination has been blocked for almost 2 1/2 years due to water policy differences between the political parties rather than any issues regarding his qualifications for the position (see "Kapocis Sentate Nomination Left on the Table," September 2013).
With the revised rule in place, the Senate was expected to vote soon on the Kopocis nomination.
Ben Grumbles, president of the U.S. Water Alliance, said another nomination of interest to the water industry was that of Mike Connor, the current Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner, who has been designated to become deputy secretary of the Interior Department. As such, he would be a top water advisor to Interior Sec. Sally Jewell.
"Like Ken, he's well-respected but also subject to a lot of potential Senate maneuvering (and filibustering) given the controversial nature of the post and the issues associated with it," Grumbles said.
About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now a Houston, Texas-based freelance writer.