Security Issues Cloud Future for Water Funding Legislation

Nov. 1, 2002
Lawmakers' interest in updating aging water infrastructure systems appeared to be languishing as Congress prepared to quit for the fall elections in mid-October.

By Maureen Lorenzetti

Lawmakers' interest in updating aging water infrastructure systems appeared to be languishing as Congress prepared to quit for the fall elections in mid-October.

Key legislation impacting industry remained on hold and it was unclear whether Congress might consider infrastructure improvement or homeland security measures in a special lame duck session in December.

House and Senate leaders said they were not prepared to rule anything out on a possible special shortened legislative session that could be called before a newly elected Congress comes to Washington in January.

Likely to be on the top of that truncated session is a discussion on a proposed Department of Homeland Security. Congress has struggled for several months over the size and scope of the new department. Bush administration officials meanwhile have indicated that they favor the bulk of any new spending on water infrastructure programs be for security purposes. A recent assessment of potential terrorist targets by the White House found that water supplies were especially vulnerable; however, the administration hasn't listed which cities are the most at risk.

Further complicating the picture is the inability of Congress this year to pass annual spending measures that fund the federal government, and with that, grant money for various drinking water programs nationwide.

Spending bills

The House Appropriations Committee Oct. 9 approved an $8.2 billion bill for the Environmental Protection Agency's new fiscal year, scheduled to start Oct. 1 but delayed because of congressional logjams. But it remains unclear when the full House will consider the measure. In the interim, Congressional budgetmakers are expected to approve a spending stopgag measure called a continuing resolution, that will keep water programs largely at existing 2002 levels until the 2003 spending bills are resolved later this year or early next year.

The pending 2003 measure passed in committee by voice vote. House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-FL) said the measure funds EPA "with an emphasis on state grants, particularly in the areas of clean water and safe drinking water."

The bill includes the following of interest:
• Provides $8.2 billion for the EPA, $583 million above the President's request and $126 million over fiscal year 2002 (FY02).
• Provides funding of $2.1 billion for Environmental Programs and Management, $64 million above the request and $57 million above fiscal year 2002.
• Funds the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds at $850 million, $25 million more than last year and the budget request.
• Funds Clean Water State Revolving Funds at $1.3 billion, nearly $100 million above the request.
• Funds State Air Grants at $217 million, while Section 106 water grants are increased to $195 million and section 319 non-point source pollution grants jump to $250 million.

The Senate Appropriations Committee passed their own EPA spending bill last July, but no floor action has occurred there either (WW 7/02).

Despite the budget stalemate, water infrastructures issues still remain very much on the legislative radar, if not on the actual agenda. Jim Jeffords (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, held an Oct. 5 hearing commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in which he called on his colleagues to consider a water funding bill this year.

"We must take action to respond to America's call for cleaner water. We must squarely address nonpoint source pollution. We must have a strong TMDL program to move states more rapidly toward cleaning up our impaired waterways. It is imperative that the TMDL rulemaking being undertaken by the Administration is a 'second step' in the program rather than a step backward," Jeffords said. "We must invest in our nation's water infrastructure."

Two bills are pending before Congress. Jeffords' committee passed S. 1961 – the Water Investment Act of 2002 – authorizing $35 billion over five years to help fund wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects through the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act's state revolving fund programs. The House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure passed a similar measure, H.R. 3930 – the Water Quality Financing Act of 2002 – authorizing $20 billion for the Clean Water SRF program.

Both bills advocate principles of asset management, system sustainability, and greater private sector involvement. Neither bill reached the floors of their respective chambers for final consideration this session.

During the Oct. 5 hearing before the Senate committee, EPA's top water official, Tracy Mehan, repeated the administration's earlier views that the top government budget priority should be toward improving homeland security. Other issues can and should be addressed as much as possible through the private sector, he said.

"The Administration does not support the authorization levels (in S. 1961) as they do not reflect the President's priorities of defense and homeland security. However, there are elements of the bills that we do support, such as new loan conditions tied to utilities' fiscal sustainability. At the same time, we continue to state that we want to make sure that the conditions operate in ways that are workable for loan applicants and states alike, and that the SRFs can continue to function to provide the needed kinds of assistance," the EPA official said.

"Most infrastructure investment has been, and will continue to be, derived from local sources, be they ratepayers or taxpayers. To meet these future challenges, we believe our strategy should be fiscally responsible and sustainable. While some of the goals and principles we have stated are reflected in legislation before Congress, some represent actions that can be taken administratively," Mehan said.

Mehan told the committee that EPA plans to meet with stakeholders at a public forum in the near future "to address the infrastructure challenge in new and innovative ways. Ensuring that our infrastructure needs are addressed will require a shared commitment on the part of the federal, state, and local governments, private business, and consumers," Mehan said.

Security Funding

Jeffords, in early October, introduced legislation to authorize $185 million to increase the safety and security of the nation's wastewater treatment plants. The Wastewater Treatment Works Security and Safety Act of 2002 would provide funds to assess vulnerability and implement security improvements. The bill also would provide $15 million for grants to help small communities conduct vulnerability assessments, develop emergency response plans, and address potential threats to the treatment works.

The Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies has endorsed the legislation.

The House of Representatives passed a similar bill, HR 5169, on September 5. Jeffords plans to move his bill forward in cooperation with other members of the EPW Committee and the House. However, it is unclear whether the bills will make it to a full vote this session.

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