By Patrick Crow
Congress was preparing to consider a bill during the Lame Duck session that would fund the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) pilot program and provide aid to Flint, Mich., for its drinking water woes.
The two measures were included in Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bills that the Senate and House have passed. Congress ran out of time to reconcile the two bills before recessing in late September but a House-Senate conference committee is expected to strike a compromise during a short November-December session.
WRDA is considered “must-pass” legislation because it would authorize funding politically popular Army Corps of Engineers construction projects to improve navigation, flood control, dam safety, and the like (see Washington Update, WW, September 2016). The Senate bill totals $9.4 billion and the House bill $5 billion but the latter contains little funding for drinking water infrastructure spending.
The Senate bill, which was approved 95 to 3, would appropriate $70 million to capitalize the WIFIA program. EPA is expected to leverage those funds to support major water infrastructure projects totaling ten times as much.
The bill deletes WIFIA’s designation as a temporary program, allows recipients to finance the Environmental Protection Agency’s $100,000 loan application fee, and explicitly makes drought prevention and mitigation projects eligible for funding.
In response to the Flint water crisis, the bill would launch a $300-million, five-year grant program to help communities and low-income households offset costs associated with replacing lead service lines and interior plumbing components. Those funds could not be used for partial lead service line replacements.
With Flint in mind, the Senate stipulated a water utility would be required to notify customers within 15 days if a lead level had been exceeded. If it failed to so, EPA would be required to notify the public.
The bill also would make several changes to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) program. One of those would permanently apply the requirement for utilities to purchase American-made iron and steel products, although EPA could grant exceptions.
WRDA’s progress through the House of Representatives was not tidy. The committee bill omitted relief for Flint, so Michigan congressmen sought to include a $170 million appropriation in the Continuing Resolution (CR). The CR had to be passed to avert a government shutdown when the new fiscal year began Oct. 1.
But Republican leaders in the House would not allow Flint relief in the CR. “That is an issue that should be dealt with in the WRDA bill,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) ruled. Angry Michigan congressmen observed that the CR contained $1.1 billion to combat the Zika virus and $500 million for flooding relief in Louisiana. They threatened to vote against both the WRDA and the CR unless either of them contained funding for Flint and some protest votes were cast against the CR.
When the House approved its WRDA bill in a 399 to 25 vote it also approved an amendment that would authorize up to $170 million for Flint.
Michigan’s congressmen were unhappy that it was an authorization for future funding, not an appropriation for immediate funding, which it would have been had it been included in the CR. Still, the amendment demonstrated broad House support for a Flint provision and all but ensured that the final WRDA bill will include a chapter on Flint.
The Michiganders said they will support the Senate-passed language on Flint because it would appropriate funds through the DWSRF and WIFIA that could be used to counter lead contamination of drinking water.
The conference committee won’t start from scratch when it begins work on WRDA in November. During the legislative break, congressional staffs were drafting recommendations on how to reconcile the two bills.
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 an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.