Senate Votes for Increase in Federal Water Infrastructure Spending

In Senate action, the chamber approved an amendment to the pending 2004 budget resolution that would more than double federal spending for water and wastewater infrastructure.

By Maureen Lorenzetti

In Senate action, the chamber approved an amendment to the pending 2004 budget resolution that would more than double federal spending for water and wastewater infrastructure. The bipartisan amendment was introduced 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). It would boost spending from current $2.2 billion levels to $5.2 billion beginning this October through existing state revolving loan funds. There is no similar House provision yet.

Water experts said the proposal has a decent chance of survival.

"We understand that Crapo will push for its inclusion in the final bill during House-Senate conference, and we think his chances of success are probably around 65%," said Debra Coy, a water analyst with Schwab Capital Markets. "If the provision does survive, congressional appropriations committees would decide how the money, which would be added to a discretionary spending account, would actually be used, probably mostly for small systems with the greatest needs."

Congressional sources stressed that the amendment is a one-year increase and is separate from ongoing albeit waning legislative efforts to establish multi-year infrastructure funding. Sources within the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for example have already told lobbyists that a water and wastewater infrastructure bill is unlikely this year because of other hot button legislative items before the panel including possibly new air pollution guidelines for power plants, retooled clean fuel rules, and transportation reauthorization.

Water Security

The House this spring is expected to hold a floor vote on a water utility security bill supported by the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies. A companion Senate bill authored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee is expected later this spring.

The House bill, sponsored by Transportation Chairman Don Young (R-AK) H.R. 866, amends the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to authorize the Environmental Protection Agency to make grants to a state, municipality, or intermunicipal or interstate agency to conduct a vulnerability assessment of a publicly owned treatment works.

The measure calls on water municipalities to implement security enhancements after the assessment is made. The bill also authorizes EPA to: (1) provide technical guidance and assistance to small publicly owned treatment works (those serving a population of fewer than 20,000) on conducting vulnerability assessments and implementing security enhancements; and (2) make grants to a nonprofit organization to improve vulnerability self-assessment methodologies and tools for publicly owned treatment works, including those that are part of a combined wastewater treatment and water supply system.

Water Planning Commission

The House Resources Water and Power Subcommittee passed legislation this spring to create a federal water planning commission. Sponsored by Rep. John Linder (R-GA) the 21st Century Water Policy Commission Establishment Act (HR 135) establishes a panel of seven water policy experts to study US water availability issues. The commission's job will be to identify the reliability of water supplies over the next 50 years and issue a report due three years after the commission forms. The commission would dissolve a month after the report is issued to Congress.

Water Utilities Oppose MTBE Safe Harbor Provisions

Water utilities last March said they were unhappy with a pending House energy bill plan that provides product liability protection to the clean fuel additives methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and ethanol.

American Water Works Association, Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and the National Association of Water Companies called the proposal "objectionable."

"This language could leave drinking water providers and their customers on the hook for potentially billions of dollars in cleanup of water contaminated by MTBE or other renewable fuels and in replacement of undrinkable water supplies," said Steve Hall, executive director for ACWA.

Sixteen states have taken action to restrict or ban MTBE because of concerns that the chemical's affinity to dissolve in water has contaminated drinking water supplies. MTBE suppliers say that leaking underground fuel storage tanks are to blame. Both conventional motor fuels and reformulated fuels containing MTBE have contaminated water tables, but MTBE alone does not pose a public health threat, MTBE producers maintain.

Proponents of the House language say that drinking water suppliers still will have legal recourse if contamination by MTBE and renewable fuels occurs because storage tanks were not properly maintained. But the water community believes the bill should clearly state that community water districts will not be left with responsibility and cost of replacing lost water supplies.

"It is worth asking, if these renewable fuels are so safe, then why is 'safe harbor' protection needed," Hall argued. "Congress should be most concerned about protecting public health and the consumer on this issue."

MTBE contamination of drinking water supplies has occurred throughout California and the nation. The South Tahoe Public Utilities District recently settled a lawsuit with eight major oil companies over the contamination of its drinking water supplies by MTBE. The district received a combined total of $69 million from these companies. Other lawsuits are pending nationwide.

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