After Flint, Congress works to push green water infrastructure

May 22, 2017
In The News

Lawmakers from both sides of the Capitol and both sides of the aisle are pushing to require the Environmental Protection Agency to promote environmentally friendly water infrastructure.

The Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act, introduced in both the House and Senate, would require the EPA to conduct outreach and training on green infrastructure through its regional offices. It also would establish a new office in the EPA to assist cities and other local governments with technical issues in complying with the Clean Water Act.

The proposal would help tackle a nationwide problem that led to a scandal in Flint, Mich., where ancient lead pipes corroded into the city's drinking water after the city government decided to switch water sources. Other cities have had to find fixes for aging infrastructure that have endangered water quality, and many hope that President Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure proposal will include some funding for them to upgrade their systems.

The bill has made it to the Senate floor after being introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. It has eight co-sponsors in the Senate, four Democrats and four Republicans. It was advanced out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously in April.

"Improvements to water infrastructure help keep Americans healthy and safe. But as local communities work to comply with burdensome EPA mandates, costs are ultimately passed on to families through higher utility bills," Fischer said. "This bipartisan legislation would give cities and local communities more control and flexibility as they manage infrastructure updates. It would also allow them to prioritize projects in an effective manner."

The bill creates the Office of the Municipal Ombudsman in the EPA.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the office would be responsible for working directly with cities on Clean Water Act compliance; promoting coordinated planning among federal, state and local governments for water infrastructure projects in the Clean Water Act permitting process; making sure cities are aware of the financial assistance they're eligible for from the federal government; and directing the EPA to revise factors local governments must consider when measuring their residents' ability to pay for water infrastructure.

According to the CBO, the Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act would require about $3 million annually for more personnel to staff the office. Trump has made no secret that he is not a big fan of the EPA, and his budget proposed slashing the agency's budget 31 percent, more than any other department.

The overall motivation for the bill is to promote "green infrastructure" for water systems. Green infrastructure mimics natural processes, such as using plants or soil systems, to filter, store, harvest or reuse water. Such infrastructure lessens the burden of sewer systems or surface waters, according to the legislation.

Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, introduced companion legislation in the House this month, saying his state needs the legislation to come up with better ways to manage its water.

"This legislation will provide additional tools and flexibility for communities to comply with mandated wastewater infrastructure improvement projects" he said. "With more than $21 billion worth of water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure needs in Ohio, it's critical to provide communities with the ability to meet their obligations in a more cost-effective manner."

Five co-sponsors — three Democrats and two Republicans — have signed on to the House version of the bill. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., also has introduced a similar bill in the House. Both bills are in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Sen. Ben Cardin, who is one of the bill's co-sponsors and the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works' infrastructure subcommittee, said he supports legislation because he says clean water is a right that the federal government must ensure.

"Americans have a right to expect that water coming from their taps is safe to drink and that Congress will do everything within its power to ensure that happens at a reasonable cost to consumers," the Maryland Democrat said. "Every community in America — urban, rural and suburban neighborhoods — will be helped by this bipartisan effort to improve our nation's water infrastructure."

Organizations lobbying on behalf of local governments have lined up behind the bill.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities have expressed support for the bill and have sent letters to many of the bill's co-sponsors asking them to continue pressing it in the halls of Congress.

The letter stated local governments are in need of any assistance they can get to fix and replace aging infrastructure.

It's one example of a problem that will be facing many towns and cities across the country, according to the letter.

"Local governments are at a crossroads. Cities and counties spend over $115 billion per year to provide safe and reliable water and sewer services and maintain a vast physical infrastructure of pipes, pumps and plants," the letter stated.

"[Federal] loans are not enough to cover the estimated costs to maintain and replace our aging infrastructure. Additionally, local governments, our residents and businesses must spend additional resources to comply with numerous environment and non-environmental federal and state unfunded mandates, which further limits the money available for water infrastructure."

A number of clean water interest groups have thrown their support behind the bill, including the Alliance for Water Efficiency and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. The American Society of Landscape Architects also has endorsed the legislation.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies said it hopes the bill receives as much support in this Congress as it received in committee.

"The bipartisan legislation adds new tools to the Clean Water Act toolbox to help municipalities more affordably meet their water infrastructure investment challenges," the statement read.