What’s Next for Federal Clean Water Initiatives?

By Kristina Surfus

The past year has been both an exciting and frustrating time for following federal clean water initiatives. This is particularly true for advocates of a strong federal funding partnership for clean water, like the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). The 2016 election season, which placed a stronger direct focus on improving the state of American infrastructure than other campaigns in recent memory, set a tone for active debate of how to address modernizing our infrastructure, including water. Once elected, President Donald Trump called for advancing infrastructure investment as one of several ambitious goals outlined for the first 100 days of his presidency. Unfortunately, timelines slipped over the course of 2017 and while key Administration staff continued working on the White House’s infrastructure plan, a fleshed-out proposal was slow to emerge.

The water infrastructure sector has been unequivocal in calling for holding the Administration and Congress’ feet to the fire to advance a major infrastructure legislative package this year. This drumbeat continues; however, it faces significant headwind. Congress has a full legislative calendar, and the quickly-approaching November midterms amplify the politics of an infrastructure bill. Meanwhile, the president has an unrelenting scope of pressing issues that have diverted his focus from advancing his infrastructure plan. In this midst, significant questions surrounding both the funding to pay for any infrastructure investments and the financial tools an infrastructure package would seek to engage remain unresolved.

Looking back on the past year, little in the way of clear progress on clean water legislation or policy reforms have been realized. While not exactly surprising in D.C.’s hyper-partisan state, it is a frustration to organizations like NACWA. As the advocate for public clean water agencies, we are interested in bipartisan solutions that advance clean water infrastructure, support the vital services our members provide and engender a degree of stability for the regulated clean water community. Unfortunately, we are seeing a falling back on proposals that attract limited support from across the aisle.

Kristina Surfus

Surfus

The most notable development from leadership this year was the White House release of its infrastructure plan in February 2018. The 55-page proposal outlined a vision for advancing innovation in infrastructure delivery, spurring transformative technologies, investing in rural America and unleashing private investment. Half of the $200 billion federal vision is directed towards an infrastructure incentives program which would be awarded largely on a project’s ability attract non-federal investment and spur new revenues. Another quarter of the total vision is targeted toward rural infrastructure, again with an orientation toward projects that can leverage non-federal funding. The remainder of the investment is directed toward potential high-risk, high-reward transformative projects, expansion of federal credit programs and increasing use of private activity bonds.

The specifics of how these achievements are proposed to be accomplished are worth perusal in the president’s plan, yet the details are beside the point. The work of translating any or all of the proposals into legislation falls to Congress. The president’s proposal simply sets forth targets at which the White House would like Congress to aim. NACWA is pleased with the plan’s recognition of clean water as a core facet of infrastructure, and the ideas of competitive funding to drive innovation are intriguing. But the overarching movement away from federal direct investment and decreased reliance on federal spending is of questionable relevance for a sector where already less than 10 percent of spending comes from the federal government. The risk is that these ideas will supplant existing programs already providing limited federal financial support to state and local entities.

Further, the proposals raise acute concerns of exasperating differences in the quality of local infrastructure — and ultimately, access to water services — by directing limited federal dollars to communities that are most able to raise local rates or attract private capital. The ability for clean water agencies to compete for funding under this plan would depend in part on their ability to raise new revenues, creating a positive opportunity for agencies able to raise rates in their communities. These programs may not be accessible or useful for agencies with affordability constraints, small ratepayer bases or other barriers to increased local, state and private investment. These ideas have an important place in the greater conversation. But the value of ensuring access to water services and being attuned to the ability of the least-able ratepayers and communities is a missing element in the White House plan that advocates will continue to bring to the debate.

But while the president’s proposal struggles to find footing on the Hill, Congress continues its work largely in a partisan manner. Democrats in both chambers have put forth proposals with a clear emphasis on direct investment and an eye toward reducing the debt burden on local governments. Democrats’ plans also direct attention to disadvantaged communities and resilient investments. But where the White House faltered by not suggesting pay-for’s for new investment, the Democrats put forth a partisan approach to repealing recently-enacted Republican tax reforms.

In this environment, NACWA continues pushing for a balanced platform of strong federal investment in Clean Water Act goals; bipartisan policy reforms to help communities target their investments and embrace holistic approaches to watershed management; thoughtful reauthorization of existing federal funding and finance programs; and incentives to innovative in the use of technology and clean water services. Many of these approaches are not without controversy, but the heightened attention this year has helped drive new conversations. It is on the water sector to continue helping Congress identify and support the most productive paths forward.


Kristina Surfus is director of legislative affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining NACWA in 2015, Surfus worked on the Hill and as a consultant. She earned an M.S. in Freshwater Science & Policy from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and B.A.’s in Environmental Analysis & Policy and International Relations from Boston University.

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