April 29, 2016

Significant Water Legislation Moving in the Senate

The largest overhaul to the nation’s aging water infrastructure in decades is making progress in the Senate. On April 28, 2016, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a $9 billion update to the Water Resources Development Act after only introducing the text earlier in the week. The bill is clearly a priority of the committee leadership.

The primary driver for the update is the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, which failed to gain traction in the Senate’s version of the Energy Bill released earlier this year. The portion addressing Flint will be the same as the text laid out for inclusion in the Energy Bill, and WRDA will make additional changes to the Army Corps of Engineers’ task to upgrade lead water lines, as well as provide funding for other water-related projects.

The bipartisan effort, led by EPW Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Boxer, includes several initiatives to improve clean water and drinking water programs, as well as new directives for the Environmental Protection Agency in how it reviews water issues. Furthermore, it authorizes a handful of regional restoration programs and offers provisions aimed at assisting the Western drought as well.

Proposal Highlights

  • Expansion of qualifications for the EPA’s State Revolving Funds to include ways to address drinking water systems
  • $300 million in grants over five years to assist small and disadvantaged communities in replacing lead service pipes
  • $100 million for schools to test for lead in their drinking water
  • $50 million annually for innovative water technology grants
  • Adjustments to the calculations used for EPA’s sewer upgrade mandates to better reflect the affordability of water rates
  • Authorization for 25 new Army Corps water projects
  • Authorization for regional restoration projects, including the Great Lakes and Lake Tahoe
  • Measures to address the Western drought crisis
  • Expansion of Army Corps authority to work with local government on water projects that pose serious health risks, such as the Salton Sea in Southern California

Outlook for the WRDA

WRDA bills typically offer little more than Army Corps authorization. After the long-delayed 2014 bill WRDA reauthorization returned to the biannual schedule in order to avoid a backlog of projects that would potentially be bogged down politically. This year's proposal is exceptional in its authorization of funding and its scope among a variety of water issues, as well as its policy changes for EPA. Some industry professionals worry that the inclusion of EPA changes will hinder the bill's chance at success, drying up support for an otherwise non-controversial bill by adding policy changes that are normally outside its intended purpose.

But the committee leaders, with Inhofe termed out of chairmanship and Boxer retiring, clearly want to make a splash on these pressing, and bipartisan, public health issues before the end of their terms. This bill is perhaps the last that will come out of the committee this year, and the senators would like to see it move before Congress breaks for the summer recess.

Next Steps

Meanwhile, the House has yet to unveil its WRDA bill. Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Shuster has shown less interest in addressing EPA policy changes, and suggests the House version will be narrowly focused. Furthermore, the funding in the bill is merely an authorization — it will be up to appropriators to actually provide funding. Whatever the outcome, the bill marks a tremendous opportunity to address some of the nation’s most imperative water issues, and we will be watching its progress closely as it makes its way through the legislative process.

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