Senate Passes Water Resources Development Act

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The Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 last Thursday. The bill now moves on to the House of Representatives, which has yet to schedule a vote on its version of WRDA.

The Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA) last week on a broad, bi-partisan vote of 95 to 3.

The bill, S.2848, which had been expected to pass, includes funding for several water and wastewater priorities such as funds to jump-start the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) pilot program, emergency funding for the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and new assistance to help schools and communities remove lead that has leached from service lines and plumbing fixtures.

The Senate’s revised version of WRDA, circulated by the bill’s sponsors in early September, includes a series of amendments to the earlier version approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee in April, but leaves intact provisions to boost water infrastructure investment and lead remediation and disclosure efforts in response to the Flint crisis.

“The U.S. Senate took an important stand [on Thursday], saying it strongly supports reinvestment in the nation’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure,” said AWWA CEO David LaFrance. “We encourage the House to pass its WRDA bill so that a House-Senate conference can convene as soon as possible to get this bill done before Congress adjourns.”

The Senate version of WRDA is a bipartisan measure from Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). In April, the Senate the Environment & Public Works Committee (EPW) approved WRDA on a near-unanimous 19-1 vote. While the Senate was unable to debate the measure prior to the July recess, EPW leadership worked hard over recess to prepare for floor debate this month.

Last Thursday’s action on the bill puts the Senate on record in favor of providing significant new investment tools and common sense regulatory reforms to help Americans afford investments in water. Specifically, the bill contains several measures that will go a long way in helping communities pay for and ensure ratepayers have access to safe and clean water, including:

  • Establishing a Water Infrastructure Trust Fund fueled by a voluntary consumer goods label to spur private investment in the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, and authorizing a study of the feasibility of establishing a low-income ratepayer assistance program;
  • Permanently authorizing the Water Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act (WIFIA);
  • Authorizing $1.8 billion to help communities deal with extreme wet weather; and
  • Codifying EPA’s Integrated Planning framework, providing communities more time to meet regulatory obligations, and establishing an Office of Municipal Ombudsman to provide a voice for municipalities struggling to provide clean and safe water.

“The National Association of Clean Water Agencies is excited to see the Senate coming together in a strong bi-partisan fashion in favor of significant investment for clean water and to provide stronger tools to help communities afford this infrastructure,” said Adam Krantz, CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. “This bill is the most significant legislative effort to date in increasing federal investment in clean water and making a number of needed policy changes to the Clean Water Act involving affordability, integrated planning and financing. NACWA members have been advocating for many of these policy measures over recent years, and we are pleased to see Congress responding. We look forward to continuing discussions on these issues as the House considers its bill.”

On the drinking water side, WRDA would deliver an infusion of funds to help Flint and communities nationwide upgrade and improve their water infrastructure. The bill includes $100 million in Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) assistance targeted for lead removal projects in Flint, plus an additional $70 million for WIFIA credit subsidies (expected to support at least $700 million worth of loans) to help communities across the country address lead in drinking water or carry out any other water infrastructure project that is otherwise eligible for WIFIA assistance. The funding would become available immediately upon enactment of the legislation.

The WRDA bill would target lead in drinking water through a $300 million, five-year grant program to help communities and low-income households offset costs associated with replacing lead service lines and interior plumbing. Grant funding could not be used on partial lead service line replacements, but communities could use the funds to replace service lines and interior plumbing components owned by low-income homeowners. An additional $100 million over five years would be authorized for another grant program to help schools and child care centers voluntarily test their water for lead contamination, in accordance with EPA’s “3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water” technical guidance. And new public notification requirements would direct public water systems to notify their customers within 15 days of a lead action level exceedance, with EPA required to deliver the notice if a utility fails to do so before the deadline.

Aside from the lead provisions, other parts of the bill would make reforms to the DWSRF, such as:

  • Codifying planning, design, preconstruction activities and water system security upgrades as costs eligible to be covered by DWSRF loans.
  • Requiring states to give priority to DWSRF projects that would increase the sustainability of a water system, and greater weight to DWSRF applications that include asset management plans and a review of utility restructuring options.
  • Permanently applying “Buy American” requirements to iron and steel products used on projects funded in whole or in part through the DWSRF.  As is the current practice, EPA would be able to offer case-by-case exemptions if adequate domestically produced iron and steel products are not available or would increase overall project costs by at least 25 percent.
  • Allowing states to offer additional subsidization to DWSRF projects that incorporate innovative water technologies.

“The Senate’s bipartisan passage of S. 2848 is an important victory for our nation’s water infrastructure,” said Diane VanDe Hei, CEO of AMWA. “The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies is particularly pleased the legislation offers assistance to help communities and homeowners work together to remove lead service lines, and capitalizes the new Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program with credit subsidies that should deliver at least $700 million worth of low-interest water and wastewater infrastructure loans to cities and towns nationwide.”

The Water Resources Development Act will now move on to the House of Representatives, which has yet to schedule a vote on its own WRDA bill (H.R. 5303). According to AMWA, the House version currently lacks any provisions related to lead or drinking water infrastructure investment, so those items would likely become negotiating points during committee meetings this fall.

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