WIFIA Passage Still Pending; Water Groups Rally Around 'No-Flush' Initiative

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By Patrick Crow

As Congress returned to work in January, the fate of Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA) legislation was still in question.

WIFIA would establish a 5-year, $50-million pilot program allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Corps of Engineers to offer low-interest loans for water and wastewater infrastructure projects costing at least $20 million (or $5 million for water systems serving 25,000 or fewer people). The demonstration program would be separate from the state revolving fund (SRF) programs for water lending.

The Senate-passed Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization bill had contained a WIFIA chapter. A similar House-passed bill did not, but a House-Senate conference committee, which was still working in early January to merge the bills, could include it in the final bill that both houses will consider. The Obama administration has taken a middle-of-the-road position and has withheld its support from WIFIA but has not directly opposed it either.

In a letter to the House-Senate conferees, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy said the administration is concerned that WIFIA would "not provide federal assistance in the most efficient manner" and thinks a National Infrastructure Bank would be a better infrastructure-financing tool.

The administration proposed the infrastructure bank in 2011, but Congress has not advanced legislation supporting the concept. The bank would make loans to energy, water and other infrastructure projects costing at least $100 million.

Water groups prefer that Congress create water-specific WIFIA programs, fearing that if an infrastructure bank were distributing loans, water projects would be forced to compete for funding against more identifiable public projects, such as highways and bridges. Opposition to WIFIA also lingers. State and local environmental officials worry that it would result in reduced congressional funding for the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water SRFs.

"Once there's something like a WIFIA, which will only help certain large projects, I think we can anticipate a very quick demise of the SRFs," said Alexandra Dunn, executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators. "It's a way to appear to create a win-win - reduce EPA's program and create this new program to address infrastructure needs - but it's an illusion."

'Do Not Flush' Campaign Gathers Momentum

Several industry groups have joined forces to reduce the volumes of non-flushable disposable products that collect in wastewater systems. The effort involves the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), the Water Environment Federation (WEF), the American Public Works Association (APWA), and the International Nonwovens and Disposables Association (INDA).

The associations said non-flushable disposable products have been linked to expensive clogging issues for utilities and can lead to costly sewer backups in communities and households. They said rigorous product assessment before making a flushable claim, along with improved product labeling, would reduce the amount of non-flushable items in the sewer system.

"Some products are designed to be flushed, while others are not," said Dave Rousse, INDA president. "It is the products that are not designed to be flushed, but get flushed anyway, that are creating the problem for wastewater systems, and we are working collaboratively to change this."

NACWA Director of Regulatory Affairs Cynthia Finley cited common examples of non-flushables, which include baby wipes, personal care wipes, paper towels, and feminine care products. Further, INDA and its European counterpart, EDANA, recently released a Code of Practice for manufacturers and marketers of disposable nonwoven products that includes a detailed decision tree to determine the proper labeling of a product.

Before a flushable claim can be made for products meant to be flushed, the product should be subjected to the tests found in INDA's/EDANA's new 3rd Edition Guidance Document for Assessing the Flushability of Nonwoven Disposable Products. If a product is not designed to be flushed but is flushed nonetheless, the Code of Practice prescribes that the product packaging should display the Do Not Flush logo prominently.

Christine Radke, manager of WEF's Water Science and Engineering Center, said that partners are working to further improve the guidelines to ensure that flushable wipes break apart more rapidly and therefore are more sewer-friendly.

Julia Anastasio, APWA's director of sustainability, added that a further improvement would be to encourage more brand owners to display the Do Not Flush logo on the top of packaging where it is easily seen by consumers each time they use the product, which some manufacturers have already done.

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.

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