WIFIA Faces Opposition: Water Groups Rally for Support

The House of Representatives recently passed a massive waterways projects bill - setting the stage for a conference committee to merge the Senate and House bills, possibly including the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), but it still faces significant opposition.

Gov Water

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

As expected, the House of Representatives easily passed a massive waterways projects bill in October - setting the stage for a conference committee to merge the Senate and House bills, possibly including the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) provision that the water and wastewater industry desires.

And not entirely expectedly, WIFIA is drawing some opposition.

The Senate-passed Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) reauthorization bill had contained a WIFIA chapter. However, the House-passed Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) did not. House leaders feared that its inclusion would have broadened the bill to Clean Water Act (CWA) jurisdiction, opening it to various environmental amendments on the floor. But because the Senate bill contained WIFIA, the conference committee will have the authority to include it in the final bill that will be sent back to both houses.

The multi-billion dollar water spending bill authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work on numerous port, waterway and flood protection infrastructure projects.

WIFIA would establish a five-year, $50 million pilot program allowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Corps of Engineers to both offer low-interest loans for water and wastewater infrastructure projects costing at least $20 million (or $5 million for water systems serving 25,000 or fewer people). The demonstration program would be separate from the state revolving fund framework for water lending.

Supporting WIFIA are the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and the Water Environment Federation (WEF).

Now warning Congress against WIFIA are the Association of Clean Water Administrators, a committee of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, the Environmental Council of the States, the Council of Infrastructure Financing Authorities, and the Ground Water Protection Council.

They observed, "Our nation's water and wastewater infrastructure needs are vast - over $700 billion is required over the next 20 years according to the Environmental Protection Agency's most recent estimates. Fresh and innovative thinking is called for to address these needs in an era of limited budgets at the national, state and local levels."

"The creation of a federally-administered, stand-alone infrastructure funding program for water and wastewater projects as some have suggested is not an approach we support," the groups said. "We appreciate the desire for a national program that more adequately supports water and wastewater system infrastructure needs."

But the groups explained that the best response would be to build upon the existing success of the state-administered Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Funds (SRFs).

"The SRFs are an extremely effective model for addressing local infrastructure needs," they said. "State administration of these funds is a proven mechanism for moving critical funding to the nation's communities that so desperately need it. More than 43,134 loans, leveraging a combined total of $58.27 billion federal and state dollars, have been successfully deployed since the inception of these programs (1987, in the case of the Clean Water SRF and 1996 for the Drinking Water SRF)."

The groups said WIFIA was prompted by the need to fund very large infrastructure projects and the perception that streamlining is needed for the funding of large project loans. "Such problems can be fixed. We fully support recent legislative initiatives to reauthorize both SRFs - and, at the same time, to fine tune them to take advantage of lessons learned over the past several years and make the SRFs even more efficient and effective for all loan recipients."

They expounded, "We are very concerned that, in the current fiscal climate, the eventual effect of congressional support for a separate, federally-administered large system program will be diminished congressional support for the SRFs, leading to a fractured and dissipated approach to infrastructure funding, thus undermining environmental and public health protection."

"To best meet system funding needs, we respectfully request that Congress reauthorize and fund state SRF programs, thereby providing for the financing of both large and small systems through SRF portfolios and leveraging the financing expertise currently existing in the states," the groups said.

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 a Houston, Texas-based freelance writer.

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