The quest for funding continues

The repair and rehabilitation of our nation's water infrastructure is going to require a lot of capital. Trillions, by some estimates. Hence, the quest for our industry's Holy Grail: a sustainable mechanism for funding water and wastewater infrastructure improvements now and into the future.

Angela Godwin

In recent years, a number of ideas have risen (and fallen) in popularity: removal of caps on private activity bonds, for example, which supporters believed would free up billions of dollars in private capital. Buzz around this bill (the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Investment Act) reached an all-time high in 2011, but it has yet to be reintroduced in the 113th Congress.

There's also WIFIA (Water Infrastructure Finance Innovations Authority), a program to make low interest loans available to projects costing $20 million or more. There's a possibility that this funding strategy could see some action in the form of a 5-year, $50 million pilot program tucked into the Senate-passed Water Resources Development Act. It's not a done deal by any stretch: the legislation is currently awaiting consideration by a conference committee to hammer out differences between it and the House-passed Water Resources Reform and Development Act (which does NOT contain a WIFIA provision).

And finally, the most recent actor to reprise its role on the funding stage: the water trust fund. Recently, Representative Earl Blumenauer (OR-03) introduced the Water Protection and Reinvestment Trust Fund Act of 2013, which is essentially a resurrection of legislation he has been trying to pass since 2009.

The bill aims to provide a small, deficit-neutral, protected source of revenue to help states replace, repair, and rehabilitate critical wastewater treatment facilities. It would do this by creating a voluntary, opt-in system whereby businesses that rely on a clean water source - such as water-based beverages and flushable products - could put a label on their products supporting their commitment to clean water. For each unit with a label, companies would contribute $0.03 to the Water Trust Fund.

It's not clear (to me, at least) how much money the bill is expected to generate. But whatever funds are collected would be distributed through the existing Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund. Further, twenty percent of the funds would go toward supporting a WIFIA program.

Of the trust fund legislation, Blumenauer said, "This bill allows responsible businesses who are dependent on clean water and effective sewage to voluntarily contribute to rebuild and renew the system. Over the long term, the bill will save consumers and local governments millions of dollars, while helping maintain and rebuild our clean water system."

"This bill doesn't cost the taxpayers a cent," he said, "and yet allows businesses and the public to enjoy the benefits of a modern and fully functional water-infrastructure system."

A number of groups have come out in support of the bill, including the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). Executive Director Ken Kirk said in a statement that "this bill's introduction is a key step toward ensuring that the federal government recommits to an enduring partnership with our states and municipalities in meeting the nation's growing clean water infrastructure needs."

Support was also expressed by the American Public Works Association (APWA), the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), the Associated General Contractors of America, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties.

The Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) had a different opinion. "While WWEMA applauds Congressman Blumenauer's continued commitment to find cost-effective solutions to meet the nation's enormous water infrastructure needs, we believe tapping into public-private partnerships and removing the state caps on private activity bonds is a far more realistic option versus taxing other industries to pay for infrastructure projects," said WWEMA President Dawn Kristof Champney.

It will be interesting to watch this bill progress and see whether it gains more traction than it has in past years. Meantime, the quest for sustainable water infrastructure funding will continue.

Angela GodwinAngela Godwin
Chief Editor, WaterWorld
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