Senate Committee Approves Water Resources Development Act of 2016

capitol-buildingIn April, the Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA) by a strong, bipartisan vote of 19-1.

The main purpose of the bill is to authorize a variety of public works, navigation and environmental restoration projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers while making relatively modest reforms to Corps’ policies and programs. Committee leaders had earlier pledged to use the bill to advance several other proposals to shore up the nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure and followed through by adding a water infrastructure title largely made up of proposals that were first offered on Capitol Hill in response to the Flint water crisis.

“I applaud our committee in taking this significant step forward to improve our nation’s water infrastructure,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), EPW committee chairman, in a statement. “This bill is not only fully paid for, it prioritizes projects to improve ports and waterways for increased global competitive advantage and supports needed flood control projects that protect millions of people and billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure.”

“WRDA ensures that the American people have clean drinking water, provides flood protection, maintains navigation routes, and improves wastewater infrastructure,” added ranking member Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “What happened in Flint has shown us how vulnerable some our water systems are, and this bill is a perfect vehicle to upgrade our water infrastructure.”

On the drinking water side, the bill includes several new funding and oversight programs in response to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. It also offers emergency funding to help Flint replace lead pipes and plumbing components while also authorizing a new program to help communities nationwide pay for the replacement of lead service lines.

Notable lead-related provisions in the bill include a $300 million grant program to help communities and low-income homeowners replace lead service lines and a $100 million program to help schools test their water for lead contamination. The bill would deliver $100 million in Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) assistance targeted to Flint, as well as $70 million in credit subsidies that could be used to originate loans under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). Lawmakers expect the credit subsidies to translate into at least $700 million worth of WIFIA loans, which could be used on lead abatement projects or any other water infrastructure project eligible for WIFIA funding.

Other sections of the bill would establish a water trust fund through the collection of voluntary fees paid by manufacturers, codify water facility security enhancements as an eligible use of DWSRF loan dollars and formally authorize EPA’s WaterSense program. The bill would further require EPA to update its Financial Capability Assessment Framework guidance after factoring in new affordability considerations and inform communities of the option to develop integrated plans for compliance with clean water rules.

On the clean water side, bill would also inject much needed investment into the nation’s clean water infrastructure and establish strong policy tools within the Clean Water Act (CWA) to aid municipal clean water utilities in meeting their environmental and public health goals. The bill would, among other things:

  • Establish, for the first time, a Clean Water Trust Fund;
  • Require a study on the potential role of low-income assistance programs to support full-cost pricing for water and sewer rates;
  • Establish a municipal ombudsman within the U.S. EPA to advocate on behalf of municipalities;
  • Incentivize Integrated Planning and allow greater use of compliance schedules to achieve water quality standards;
  • Promote greater use of Green Infrastructure and other innovative technologies to management wet weather; and
  • Authorize $1.8 billion for the CWA’s sewer overflow control grant program.

Lastly, the WRDA also includes key water reuse provisions. The legislation cites a Water Environment Federation (WEF) and WateReuse Association-sponsored economic study that demonstrates the value of robust funding for State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs. Some of the provisions of the bill that support increased water reuse include:

  • A WaterSense program to identify and promote water efficient products, buildings, etc., including reuse and recycling technologies;
  • An Innovative Water Technology Grant Program to accelerate innovate technologies, including reuse and recycling, to address water challenges;
  • A task force to draft national drought resilience guidelines, including provisions for reuse; and
  • Additional assistance for use of innovative technology in Clean and Drinking Water SRFs.

Although WRDA is intended to be biennial legislation, there have been gaps between measures. The legislation still needs to be voted on by the full Senate and the House of Representatives must pass its own version. The legislation appears on track to go to the Senate floor this summer, although Inhofe and Boxer did not repeat an earlier prediction that the bill would receive a floor vote before July 4.

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