Congress Drops Water Infrastructure Spending Measure

A Senate plan that would have more than doubled federal spending for water and wastewater infrastructure failed to get into the 2004 budget resolution.

By Maureen Lorenzetti

A Senate plan that would have more than doubled federal spending for water and wastewater infrastructure failed to get into the 2004 budget resolution. A House-Senate conference dropped the measure this spring.

But a bipartisan coalition led by Sen. Michael Crapo (R-ID), chairman of the Senate subcommittee with responsibility for water, along with Sens. Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) and James Jeffords (I-VT) still want to try and boost annual spending from current $2.2 billion levels to $5.2 billion beginning this October through the annual appropriations process.

Some lobbyists are skeptical the measure will survive given that as yet it does not have the support of the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee James Inhofe (R-OK) or key appropriators.

House Approves Water Security Measure

The House in May on a 413-2 vote passed a water utility security bill that provides $200 million in federal grants for publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities to conduct vulnerability assessments and improve security. Sponsored by Transportation Chairman Don Young (R-AK) H.R. 866, The Wastewater Treatment Works Security Act, amends the Federal Water Pollution Control Act by allowing Environmental Protection Agency to make grants and to provide technical guidance to small treatment works.

"This legislation is designed to help wastewater treatment utilities take immediate and necessary steps to improve security at their facilities and to fill a remaining major security gap with our nation's critical infrastructure," Young said. "This is the same bipartisan bill that passed the House in the last Congress. Unfortunately, the Senate failed to act on it then. I urge our colleagues in the other body to pass H.R. 866 as soon as possible, so that we can begin to address this issue. We cannot accept any weak links in the security of our nation's infrastructure."

It is unclear when the Senate will consider the issue, however.

Interior Unveils Water Strategy Plan

Chronic water supply problems in the West are one of the greatest challenges facing the nation in the coming decades, Secretary Gale Norton said May 2. She unveiled a new Bush administration plan that policymakers say will help communities better manage water resources over the next 25 years.

The proposal — Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West — calls for concentrating existing federal financial and technical resources in key western watersheds, Department of Interior officials said. DOI says it wants to earmark critical research and development in areas such as water conservation and desalinization, to help predict, prevent, and alleviate water supply conflicts. The President's FY 2004 budget calls for an initial investment of $11 million for such efforts.

"Crisis management is not an effective solution for addressing long-term, systematic water supply problems," said Norton, noting that crises in the Klamath River and Middle Rio Grande River basins — where farmers, urban residents, Native Americans, and fish and wildlife have been affected by water shortages — vividly demonstrate the consequences of failing to strategically address the problem of competing demands for a finite water supply.

A primary principle of Water 2025 is that solutions to complex water supply issues must recognize and respect state, tribal, and federal water rights, contracts, and interstate compacts and decrees of the United States Supreme Court that allocate the right to use water, Interior officials said.

"Water 2025 recognizes that states, tribes, and local governments should have a leading role in meeting these challenges," Norton said. "The Department of the Interior should focus its attention and resources on areas where scarce federal dollars can provide the greatest benefits to the West and the nation."

In some areas, the Secretary noted, there is not enough water to meet the existing needs of cities, farms, tribes, and the environment even under normal water conditions. And, the continuing drought magnifies already stressed water supply situations in important river basins.

Driving this new reality, she said, are explosive population growth in western urban areas, the increasing need for water for environmental and recreational users, and the national importance of food and fiber production from Western farms and ranches.

Environmental groups, however, criticized the proposal, saying the initial funding is too anemic to ensure any meaningful results will occur to encourage conservation and natural resource protection.

But Interior defended the proposal, saying the Water 2025 effort could help stretch existing water supplies by working with local authorities to improve conservation, be more efficient, and better monitor water resources. Interior also noted that modernizing aging water supply structures — from dams and reservoirs to pumping stations, pipelines, and canals — can help stretch existing water supplies.

In some cases, collaborative approaches and market-based transfers can use water banks or other means to meet emerging needs, Interior officials added. And federal investments in research and development can provide more affordable water treatment technologies, such as desalination, to increase water supplies in critical areas, Norton said.

US Senate Passes Storage Tank Bill

The US Senate May 2 approved by unanimous consent legislation designed to help prevent groundwater contamination caused by leaking underground storage tanks (S. 195). The bill also includes $125 million in funding for cleanup of sites contaminated by the clean fuel additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

A recent General Accounting Office study says that about 76,000 tanks have never been upgraded to meet minimum federal standards. GAO researchers said that more than 200,000 tanks are not being operated and maintained properly due, in part, to infrequent tank inspections and limited funding.

To avoid future incidents, the legislation requires the inspection of all underground storage tanks every two years, and for the first time, focuses on the training of tank operators, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) said.

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