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Environment & Energy Report

Senate Water Bills Need More Funding Due to Pandemic: Witnesses

April 22, 2020, 10:47 PM

Two bipartisan draft water infrastructure bills unveiled this week by the Senate environment committee are a good start but will need even more funding in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, water agencies and other groups said Wednesday.

The America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 centers mostly on Army Corps of Engineers projects and policy, and would authorize roughly $17 billion in infrastructure projects.

The Drinking Water Infrastructure Act of 2020 would provide roughly $2.5 billion in authorizations, including reauthorizing a Safe Drinking Water Act emergency fund, and $300 million in grants for cleaning drinking water of emerging contaminants, particularly toxic PFAS.

The measures, drafted by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), were generally greeted as good first efforts by five witnesses picked by the committee to weigh in with paper comments submitted electronically in lieu of a traditional hearing.

But those groups, representing contractors, water system operators, and ranchers, as well as the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which advocates for beach and shoreline restoration, urged more funding, given the need for clean drinking water to help combat the coronavirus.

They also sought more funding to ensure Americans don’t have their service cut off at a time of increasing layoffs and a struggling economy.

Billions in Pandemic Losses

Diane VanDe Hei, chief executive officer for the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, wrote that the Covid-19 pandemic is already devastating U.S. drinking water systems and is projected to reduce total revenue by $13.9 billion, nearly 17% of the industry’s annual total.

Nearly $5 billion of that sum will come from losses from increased customer delinquencies, with an additional $500 million reduction coming from utilities that decided to halt water service shutoffs for nonpayment during the public health emergency.

Factoring in revenue losses to the nation’s wastewater systems, the total lost revenue combined from drinking water and wastewater systems over one year could approach $27 billion, she wrote. The AMWA represents the nation’s largest publicly owned drinking water systems.

The group would like the water infrastructure bill to expand grants under the Drinking Water System Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability Program, which are currently limited to drinking water systems serving disadvantaged communities or those serving fewer than 10,000 people, VanDe Hei said.

Streamlining Permitting

Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, wrote that reauthorizing water infrastructure projects is critical to funding Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects, including dredging and improvement of locks, as well as flood control, dams, and improved water supply.

He urged Congress “to avoid including controversial provisions that could jeopardize the broad, bipartisan support for passing a water resources development bill this year,” referring to policy riders often sought to be attached to legislation by environmental and other groups.

The AGC also backs a section in the water infrastructure bill that would streamline the environmental review and permitting process for some projects, which Sandherr said would allow “water resources projects to begin quickly and efficiently.” The section directs the Corps to complete feasibility studies within two years of a project’s start.

Other witnesses the committee tapped to initially provide testimony were Niels Hansen, vice president for the Public Lands Council; Dan Coughlin, board member with the Wyoming Association of Rural Water Systems; and Tony Pratt, president of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association.

Those groups had until Wednesday to submit comments—one day after the draft measures were unveiled by the environment panel.

Virtual Hearing

The environment panel’s virtual hearing gave these witnesses the first shot at commenting. Other groups and the public have until May 1 to submit feedback. Environment committee members have through April 24 to submit questions for the five witnesses.

The draft drinking water measure was authored by Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who serve on the committee. The water infrastructure bill was authored by committee members Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies said the draft American Water Infrastructure Act is a good first step.

“The bill authorizes a much-needed boost for clean water infrastructure, including establishing a grant program to help publicly-owned treatment works invest in adaptation and resilience, doubling the competitive grants program to develop the water utility workforce,” while boosting sewer overflow and stormwater grants, said Kristina Surfus, NACWA’s managing director of government affairs.

It also gives “a significant boost” to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which help local governments improve water treatment, she said.

— With assistance from Amena H. Saiyid.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com

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