Senate Panel Eyes Water Infrastructure Needs

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works got some practical advice at a recent hearing on the federal government's role in keeping water and wastewater infrastructure affordable.

By Patrick Crow

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works got some practical advice at a recent hearing on the federal government’s role in keeping water and wastewater infrastructure affordable.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) noted that EPA has identified $384 billion in drinking water needs and $271 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, based on capital improvement plans by local utilities. He said the U.S. Conference of Mayors has reported local governments invested more than $2 trillion in their water and sewer infrastructure through 2013, including $117 billion in 2013 alone.

Inhofe said local ratepayers normally should bear most of those costs but “as federal mandates pile up, the bills paid by individual homeowners get bigger and are becoming unaffordable for many Americans. Federal mandates also force local communities to change their priorities. In the water and sewer world, this pushes basic repair and replacement to the bottom of the list.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said, “The lead poisoning of children in Flint shows why we need additional investments in our infrastructure systems to keep families safe from toxins such as lead in their drinking water. It also demonstrates that we still have a long way to go in providing safe, reliable drinking water to all Americans and to cleaning up the waterways that serve as sources of our drinking water.”

Witnesses at the hearing were Lima, Ohio, Mayor David Berger, who represented the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Rudolph Chow, director of the Baltimore, Md., Department of Public Works, who testified for the Water Environment Federation; Robert Moore, general manger of the Marshall County (Okla.) Water Corp., who spoke for the National Rural Water Association; Aurel Arndt, Chair of the American Water Works Association’s Water Utility Council; Joe Gysel, president of EPCOR Water (USA) Inc., representing the National Association of Water Companies; and Erik Olsen, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program.

Arndt said in 2012 an AWWA report concluded a $1 trillion investment in the nation’s buried drinking water infrastructure was needed over the next 25 years. He added, “Above-ground facilities, wastewater, stormwater, and other water-related investment needs are at least as large, and must be added to reflect the true magnitude of the water investment needs before our country.”

Arndt said AWWA is working on a similar report detailing needs for wastewater infrastructure.

Gysel said NAWC’s member companies have launched more than 2,000 public-private partnerships (P3s) that “combine the best practices, skills, assets and resources of both government and private sectors to deliver superior water service or efficiently maintain a water facility.”

Gysel told the senators that one of the most effective federal tools for building infrastructure is the private activity bond (PAB), tax-exempt financing granted to the private sector for public-purpose projects, like water. “The use of PABs spurs capital investment in public projects during a time when governmental budgets are tight; and investors prefer PABs because interest accrues tax-free,” he explained.

National Association of Clean Water Agencies submitted a statement urging Congress to substantially increase funding for the Clean Water SRF, revise the Clean Water Act to focus funding on projects with the greatest water quality benefit, and bolster assistance programs for lower-income ratepayers.

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 an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.

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