By Vanessa M. Leiby
As I ponder the future of water infrastructure in 2018, I reflect upon 2017 for some guidance and direction. From a political, social, and regulatory perspective, 2017 was a year of massive change, upheaval, redirection, and refocus. The new Trump Administration took office with some very specific campaign promises to fulfill on immigration, health care, and tax reform; trade; reducing the size of government; streamlining and reducing regulations; building American businesses and making America great again; building up defense spending; and rebuilding America’s infrastructure. In spite of the chaos — floods, hurricanes, and fires; terrorism events; “fake” news; the contentious relationship between our three branches of government; the revolving door in the West Wing; and the Russian meddling investigation — the President has managed to pen numerous Executive Orders and Memoranda that get to the crux of many of these campaign promises.
Water groups have come together to ensure water has a united voice in Washington. Photo: USEPA
The President’s 2018 budget plan significantly shrinks the size of government, particularly the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He instituted a one-in, two-out process whereby federal agencies must offset the cost of any new regulations by modifying or rescinding other regulations of equal or greater cost currently on the books. He withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and is actively renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico in an attempt to reduce the U.S. trade deficit. Congress was actively working on a tax reform plan that the President signed on December 22. And the Administration rolled out an Infrastructure Plan outline to begin discussions on rebuilding our roads, bridges, airports, telecommunications, water, and other infrastructure.
While attempts at health care reform failed twice in the Congress, it is likely that we will see this issue raised again in 2018. Likewise, time ran out before Congress could actively debate the infrastructure issue but some foundation was set for this discussion in 2018. All indications are that the President plans to release his long-awaited proposal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure this month.
According to a White House official, Trump will release “detailed legislative principles” in early January in the form of a 70-page infrastructure memo to Congress to serve as a building block for lawmakers to write actual legislation. The Administration, which released some general principles in mid-2017, will likely continue to push for $200 billion in federal seed money, along with permit reform and incentives for private funding and public-private partnerships, to leverage $1 trillion in overall infrastructure investment over the next 10 years.
Preliminary discussions indicate the plan will put the federal dollars into four areas: cash for states and localities, with preferences for entities that generate their own funding as well; formula block grants for rural areas; federal lending programs; and money for “transformational” work such as plans to build high-speed rail systems. The guiding principal of the plan is to shift responsibility for funding from the federal government to states and localities by providing incentives for them to generate their own sustainable funding sources and work with the private sector.
One of the challenges will be how to pay for this investment. In 2017 popular opinion seemed to link this effort with costs savings derived from health care and tax reform, which did not pan out. The bottom line is that unless some new source of revenue can be found, relatively few new federal dollars should be expected, and once again, localities and states will be left to shoulder much of the funding burden.
That said, various organizations across all types of infrastructure have been doing their homework and developing proposals and even legislative language to introduce into the debate this year. While many of the individual water groups already have proposals and plans on the table, it has become apparent that a united “water voice” is needed to ensure that water receives its rightful place in any infrastructure discussion. To that end, a number of water organizations including the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA), the American Water Works Association, the Water Environment Federation, the U.S. Water Alliance, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, the National Association of Water Companies, the WateReuse Association, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, among others, have formed an Ad Hoc Water Infrastructure Group to develop consensus priorities for the nation’s water infrastructure.
The group released its Priorities for the Nation’s Water Infrastructure on November 2, 2017, and held a successful Congressional Briefing that day on Capitol Hill. The key priority areas include:
1. Incentivizing partnership among water and wastewater systems and the consolidation of failing water and wastewater systems;
2. Providing more federal funding through WIFIA, SRFs, and technical assistance;
3. Encouraging more private sector participation and investment by eliminating barriers;
4. Modernizing and streamlining the SRFs;
5. Accelerating the adoption of innovative technologies.
This group has taken a broader approach to infrastructure investment calling for dramatic changes to the water sector to improve efficiency and operations to maximize the use of federal, state, and local funding. The group is planning to continue its efforts into 2018 to ensure that the voice of water infrastructure is included in the national infrastructure dialog and debate. WW
Vanessa M. Leiby is the executive director of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA). A trade association formed in 1908, WWEMA is the voice of water and wastewater technology providers in the water sector. More information about WWEMA can be found at www.wwema.org.