Taking the Clean Water Message to Congress

Taking the Clean Water Message to CongressBy Pat Sinicropi



In April, hundreds of water quality professionals visited Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress and discuss the prevailing water quality-related policy issues they are concerned about in what was billed as Water Week 2014, a first-ever event for Washington and for the water sector. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), together with the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), hosted a week-long series of events that provided NACWA members an opportunity to learn about some of the key water quality matters that Congress and the Obama Administration are dealing with and, more importantly, to provide them an opportunity to communicate to Congress about the key water quality issues they are struggling with back home. Additional groups participating in Water Week included the U.S. Water Alliance, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and dozens of other state and regional water associations.

A myriad of water-related challenges confront communities across America including persistent droughts that threaten local water supplies; nutrient pollution that threatens both water supplies and estuaries; and extreme wet weather events that cause more frequent flooding and sewage overflows. These trends are placing unprecedented pressure on clean water utilities to transform the way wastewater and stormwater resources are managed while ensuring these services remain affordable to ratepayers. Federal clean water policies crafted in Washington, D.C., unquestionably impact how effectively our clean water utilities will surmount these challenges, so ensuring our voices are heard on Capitol Hill is paramount. Water Week provided an excellent opportunity for the water sector to do this.

A top focus on Capitol Hill during Water Week was how utilities are transforming themselves into engines of innovation and resource recovery, and how Congress can support these efforts. NACWA members fanned out across the Hill to urge Members of Congress to join the House Clean Water Caucus, whose focus is to shine a national spotlight on the innovative utility efforts that are benefitting local communities and the economy. The Caucus, co-chaired by Congressmen Jimmy Duncan (R-Tenn.) and Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, hosted its first congressional briefing during Water Week, providing an opportunity for congressional staff to learn about specific innovations underway in San Francisco, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Chicago and Syracuse. These “Utilities of the Future” are all examples of how innovation and technology are driving them toward a new way of doing business. Examples included: Cincinnati’s combination of gray and green infrastructure to more sustainably manage stormwater; Chicago’s creative use of nutrient recovery technology to produce higher-quality fertilizer for nearby farms; and San Francisco’s biogas-based energy recovery program that is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions footprint and providing power to support its operations.

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Pat Sinicropi, National Association of Clean Water Agencies

Several key bills have been introduced in Congress to help incentivize a utility’s efforts toward such innovation, including S. 1677 and H.R. 3449, the Innovative Stormwater Infrastructure Solutions Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-Md.), which would provide federal grant financing to help communities install green infrastructure. S. 1508 and H.R. 765, the Water Systems Resiliency and Sustainability Act, introduced in the House by Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and in the Senate by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would provide additional funding through the State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs for improvements utilities are undertaking to more effectively manage extreme weather events such as droughts and hurricanes.

Moving on to another key message carried to Capitol Hill is the issue of affordability and ensuring that compliance obligations under the Clean Water Act (CWA) are implemented in an affordable manner for municipal ratepayers. The primary bill that NACWA is working hard to see enacted is the Clean Water Affordability Act, H.R. 3862, sponsored by Congressmen Bob Latta (R-Ohio) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.) requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise a 1997 guidance document for determining a community’s level of financial capability during negotiations for consent decrees over wet weather violations under the CWA. It would also codify a new planning tool that EPA rolled out in 2012 to help communities manage their obligations under the CWA more affordably, referred to as Integrated Planning. Related legislation is expected soon in the Senate with the effort being led by Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Of course, a key focus of NACWA’s legislative agenda remains the critical subject of funding and financing for wastewater infrastructure and ensuring the federal government remains a partner in this task despite pressures on the federal budget. In the spending game on Capitol Hill, a strong defense requires a good offense, so our Water Week message included both. For the past several years, NACWA has convened a broad coalition of water sector associations to write to Congressional appropriators (the folks who decide how to spend federal dollars) to urge them to continue funding the SRF programs at current levels ($1,450 billion for the Clean Water SRF and $907 billion for the Drinking Water SRF). Despite repeated attempts in recent years by the Obama Administration to reduce this funding, Congress, under the leadership of Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark.), has maintained these funding levels. This year, Congress is likely to enact a new pilot water infrastructure financing program as part of the Water Resources Development Act. The program is referred to as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovations Act (WIFIA) and would provide direct loans and loan guarantees for water, wastewater and flood control projects. Our members are supporting this new initiative to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with funding for the SRF programs.

The establishment of the WIFIA raises the issue of how to ensure there are sufficient federal resources from year to year so that the SRF programs as well as new investment tools are adequately funded. This brings us to the concept of a trust fund and advocating for legislation to establish one. In addition to urging Congress to support continued spending on the SRF and, potentially a WIFIA, NACWA members also urged Congress to adopt two pieces of legislation creating a long-term trust fund for investments in these programs. A trust fund is simply a mechanism to raise dedicated revenue that isn’t subject to the annual appropriations process and that targets this revenue toward investments in water and wastewater infrastructure. There are two pieces of legislation supporting this concept: One sponsored by Congressman Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), H.R. 1877, the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act; and a second one sponsored by Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), H.R. 3582, the Water Protection and Reinvestment Trust Fund Act. Both have bi-partisan support and both would establish a permanent and non-discretionary spending mechanism to ensure the federal commitment to communities to help meet their drinking water and clean water obligations remains strong.

The clean water community is committed to continuing to focus on viable and sustainable policy solutions that ensure Americans continue to enjoy clean and safe water. Congress plays a critical role in these efforts and events such as Water Week provide our community with an excellent opportunity to remind Congress how important their role is. We look forward to seeing the water community in Washington next year for Water Week 2015.


 

Pat Sinicropi is the director of legislative affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) in Washington, D.C.

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