Washington Power Shift to Slow Water Industry Measures

The shift in power in the House of Representatives has changed the prospects for water-related legislation in the 112th Congress, which will sit in January and start work in February.

By Patrick Crow, WaterWorld Correspondent

The shift in power in the House of Representatives has changed the prospects for water-related legislation in the 112th Congress, which will sit in January and start work in February.

Republicans seized control of the House in the November elections, increasing their numbers from 178 to 242. Democrats slipped from 255 to 192.

The November elections left the Democrats in control of the Senate with a slim majority. The Senate previously had 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans and 2 independents (who caucus with the Democrats). The November elections changed the balance to 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and 2 independents.

With Republicans controlling the House and Democrats the Senate, it will be even more difficult than usual in 2011 for the two chambers to compromise on legislation after they pass it.

For water utilities, that means that comprehensive climate change legislation is dead. Water utilities had wanted financial help in the legislation to help them adapt to new operating conditions.

As a sign of the times, the House disbanded its Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in December. The panel, which had no power to draft legislation, had been created to showcase the perceived threats of climate change.

House Republicans will block drinking water security bills, as proposed in the past Congress. Those bills could force utilities to consider (or implement) "inherently safer" technologies that also are inherently more expensive. The Republicans are more likely to continue the water sector's current exemption from the chemical industry security program.

In 2011, Republicans in both houses of Congress are likely to push to reduce federal spending -- including the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- in the post-recession, budget-conscious atmosphere.

The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner (D-Ohio), was pushing for a moratorium in 2011 on congressional "earmarks," more commonly known as "pork barrel spending." Last year most of the House Republicans pledged not to seek federal funds for "pet" projects in their districts.

Water utilities have benefited from such earmarks -- which circumvent the State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs for clean water and wastewater. The Congressional Research Service has reported that 13% of all water infrastructure funds distributed since the beginning of the SRF program have been earmarked for specific projects and were not subject to state priority rankings.

In the Senate, leaders of the Environment and Public Works Committee have said they will push for a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) next year, despite concerns about federal spending.

The biennial WRDA -- which is a notorious vehicle for pork barrel spending -- authorizes federal spending for navigation, flood control and environmental restoration projects. Critics have complained that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies should reduce their $60 billion backlog of authorized projects before Congress approves even more.

The November elections saw the defeat of two House icons: James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) Oberstar, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has been a champion of legislation to reauthorize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

Dingell, the senior congressman in the House, was a long-time chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees EPA and federal drinking water policy.

WaterSense Program

EPA has extended its existing WaterSense program to housing, certifying the nation's first WaterSense labeled homes.

KB Home built four WaterSense labeled homes in Roseville, Calif. They were designed to help their owners save an average of 10,000 gallons of water and $100 on utility bills per year. Each will use about 20% less water than a typical new house.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, "To meet the environmental and economic needs of homes and communities, it's important that we do everything we can to conserve water and energy and shrink costs for American consumers.

"The construction of the first WaterSense labeled homes, and the plans to build more, mark the beginning of an innovative approach that gives homeowners the chance to cut their water and energy bills and protect a vital environmental resource."

Since becoming the first national builder to partner with the federal agency, KB Home has agreed to build three WaterSense communities of homes. Each house includes WaterSense labeled plumbing fixtures, an efficient hot water delivery system, water-efficient landscape design, and other water and energy-efficient features.

Each house is certified to ensure EPA's criteria are met. EPA said if all of the 500,000 homes built last year in the U.S. had met its WaterSense criteria, they would have saved consumers 5 billion gallons of water and more than $50 million in utility bills annually.

Economic Reports

The National Governors Association (NGA) and the National Association of State Budget Officers said states face a bleak fiscal outlook. In their biannual report, they predicted state revenues are only expected to grow slightly.

Their report said that slow revenue growth, increased spending demands, and the end of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding would contribute to the states' fiscal strains.

NGA Executive Director Raymond Scheppach said, "Spending and revenues are unlikely to return to pre-recession levels until 2013 or 2014. Since the recession began, states have had significant revenue declines and in order to balance their budgets, have made significant cuts and in some cases enacted tax and fee increases."

The report said following a 3.8% decline in fiscal 2009, the states' general fund spending declined by 7.3% in fiscal 2010 and is expected to increase, based on states' enacted budgets, by 5.3% in fiscal 2011. However, it projected that general fund spending in fiscal 2011 would be $42 billion lower than in fiscal 2008.

It said general fund revenues declined 2.5% in fiscal 2010 compared to fiscal 2009. However, states are projecting a 4.4% increase in general fund revenue collections in fiscal 2011 compared to fiscal 2010. Even with that increase, fiscal 2011 revenues would be $43.7 billion, 6.5% below fiscal 2008 levels.

The report said mid-year budget cuts are one of the clearest indications of state fiscal stress, since they highlight the difference between budgeted spending and revenue collections. It said 39 states made $18.3 billion in mid-year budget cuts in fiscal 2010. Fourteen states have made $4 billion in cuts so far in fiscal 2011.

In other Washington news:
-- EPA said in fiscal 2010 (ending last Sept. 30) it took enforcement and compliance actions that required polluters to pay more than $110 million in civil penalties and commit to spend $12 billion on pollution controls, cleanup, and environmental projects. EPA said those actions would reduce pollution by more than 1.4 billion pounds/year.
-- Ben Grumbles, the former EPA Assistant Administrator for Water in the Bush Administration, has been named president of the Clean Water America Alliance. He has served on the group's board since April 2009.
-- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has approved a bill to cut the levels of lead in drinking water. Lead in the wetted surfaces of pipes and fixtures would drop from the current limit of 8% to a weighted average of 0.25%. The House of Representatives passed a similar bill last July.
-- EPA has asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to reissue Clean Water Act discharge permits for 80 sewage treatment plants or industrial facilities. The permits been delayed pending resolution of concerns that EPA had raised.

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