Senate Studies Water Management Challenges

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled an April 5 hearing to explore proposals to meet the nation’s increasing demand for water.

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled an April 5 hearing to explore proposals to meet the nation’s increasing demand for water.

Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and ranking minority member Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) invited the water industry, government, public interest groups, academia and private citizens to submit ideas.

Domenici noted that the western US faces significant water challenges and the conference could help the committee craft legislation this year.

“Congress needs to play a stronger role in crafting appropriate strategies to address water resources issues and to identify areas where federal resources should be targeted,” Bingaman said.

The committee asked for comments regarding six water management challenges: the need and best method for federal, state and local coordination on water issues; the role of the Bureau of Reclamation; the role of the federal government in settling tribal water rights claims; technological developments for storage, conservation, and measuring current water supplies; increased support for scientific research; and the government’s responsibilities in drought response.

Separately, Domenici told a conference of the American Chemical Society and the Senate Science and Technology Caucus that the nation faces “a mounting crisis in water quality and quantity.”

“There are arguments over whether this nation faces a serious water crisis. For most people, if the tap works and the lawn can be watered, there’s no water problem. But water, like energy, is a key component to industry and the American economy. This is an escalating problem, not just in arid regions but all over the country,” he said.

AWWA Seeks Hearing On MTBE Legislation

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has urged the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to hold a hearing on a provision in the draft energy policy reform bill that would grant a liability waiver for methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

Instead, the committee agreed to accept written testimony on the MTBE issue from AWWA and other water and local government organizations.

Jack Hoffbuhr, AWWA executive director, said, “Before members of Congress vote on energy legislation, they need to become aware of the damage that the MTBE provision will cause to communities across the country.”

MTBE, an additive in reformulated gasoline, has been detected in groundwater in numerous areas where gasoline leaks have occurred. The chemical makes water undrinkable even in minute amounts.

The MTBE provision would provide “safe harbor” from product liability suits to gasoline manufacturers. AWWA said that would shield them from cleanup costs, which it estimated at $29 billion.

The association said 36 states across the nation have found MTBE contamination of water supplies, affecting a population of 41 million Americans.

It said the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified MTBE as a possible human carcinogen. Other health concerns related to MTBE range from headaches and dizziness to burning of the nose and throat, disorientation and nausea.

AWWA and other municipal and water groups wrote congressmen in February, objecting to the MTBE provision. They warned, “The liability waiver amounts to a massive unfunded mandate on local governments and ratepayers.”

Hoffbuhr said, “Those responsible for creating the MTBE mess ought to help clean it up. The MTBE safe harbor provision would give blank-check protection to gasoline manufacturers, sticking local utilities and their customers with hefty bills for a problem they didn’t create.”

Last session, the House also put an MTBE exemption in its energy bill. That legislation failed to pass the Senate, due to objections to the MTBE and other provisions.

Some House Members Oppose Blending Rule

A third of the House of Representatives has urged EPA to drop a proposal to let wastewater treatment plants to mix untreated and treated wastewater during heavy storms.

In a letter to EPA, 135 representatives said such a plan would cause more waterborne illnesses and violate the Clean Water Act.

“The proposed guidance is inconsistent with sewage treatment standards. It would undo many of the public health and environmental gains achieved over the last 30 years under the Clean Water Act,” the congressmen said.

The lawmakers urged increased federal investment in sewage treatment facilities. “Whenever there is an accidental breach in sewage treatment facilities, we see the repercussions of polluted water to human health, our constituents’ livelihoods and tourism. That is why it is sound economic and environmental policy to invest in effective sewage treatment.”

Nancy Stoner, a Natural Resources Defense Council official, said, “Directly dumping sewage into waters we use for drinking, fishing and swimming would violate the Clean Water Act and EPA’s own rules requiring full treatment. Sewage causes a range of illnesses, from diarrhea, vomiting and respiratory infections to hepatitis and dysentery, and more Americans would get sick because of this indefensible policy change.”

SRF Funding Cuts Draw Criticism

The Bush administration’s proposed funding for water and sewer loan programs in fiscal 2006 has drawn early criticism in Congress.

The House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the proposal for the clean water state revolving fund (SRF), which is used to improve the nation’s wastewater infrastructure.

John Duncan (R-Tenn.), subcommittee chairman, said, “The SRF program is one of the most cost-effective programs in government. For every dollar the federal government invests, more than two dollars is made available for environmental improvements.

“However, studies by both EPA and the Congressional Budget Offices have confirmed that the gap between current levels of spending and the necessary level of investment in wastewater infrastructure is staggering and we need to double our efforts to close that gap.

“The consequences of failing to invest are severe. Without upgrades to wastewater treatment plants, not only will we fail to make progress in water quality, but as our population increases, we will lose the gains we have made over the past 30 years.”

The subcommittee noted that the administration is requesting $730 million for the SRF in fiscal 2006, or $120 million less than it requested a year ago and $361 million less than Congress appropriated.

It said wastewater capital needs are expected to be as much as $400 billion over the next 20 years and at the current rate of capital investment, $10 billion a year, the gap will be $200 billion - requiring a doubling of investments.

The Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA) said proposed cuts to the clean water SRF are untenable and the federal government must commit to long-term clean water funding.

Ken Kirk, AMSA executive director, said, “Without a long-term, sustainable federal-state-local partnership, communities will not be able to tackle essential capital replacement projects needed to meet federal Clean Water Act mandates and improve the quality of the nation’s waters.”

AMSA is advocating that Congress create a self-sustaining trust fund, similar to the Highway Trust Fund, to finance the clean water SRF and remove it from annual budgetary battles.

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