News Feature | December 19, 2013

Disagreements Emerge As Water Bill Nears Finish Line

By Sara Jerome

capitolreg

Water utilities are at the center of a new fight in Congress. 

Senate and House negotiators are hammering out the final language in a major water infrastructure bill, and some even say it could pass by the end of the year. Both chambers already approved the legislation, but a deal must be struck on the final language in the measure before it can be sent to the president for his signature. 

All of this is hopeful news for the water sector, but now it looks like the legislation will not reach the finish line without another round of infighting on Capitol Hill. 

According to E&E News, "A quiet brawl has erupted in the water infrastructure community over a provision that would create a new funding mechanism for water utilities."

A loan-based funding program that appears in the Senate version of the bill has come under scrutiny. 

Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of government affairs for the American Water Works Association said in the report that a loan-based program like the one in the bill makes sense because it would keep funding decisions at the local level. AWWA is a top proponent of the legislation.

Groups representing state and local environmental officials argue that "a flashy new program would likely be the 'death knell'" for funds that already exist, in particular the "revolving funds whose low-interest loans are one of the prime tools that cash-strapped communities rely on for upgrades." Those include the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water revolving funds. 

They say a new WIFIA program could provide just the excuse that budget slashers are looking for to further target the state revolving funds," the report said. 

"Once there's something like a WIFIA, which will only help certain large projects, I think we can anticipate a very quick demise of the SRFs," said Alexandra Dunn, executive director of the Association of Clean Water Administrators. "It's a way to appear to create a win-win -- reduce EPA's program and create this new program to address infrastructure needs -- but it's an illusion."

Supporters say the new loan program will be in addition to the earlier funding mechanisms, not a replacement of them. 

President Obama said that "he prefers the democratically-controlled Senate's version of the water bill, but he has also said that he can accept the House's legislation," according to The Hill

Another key difference is that "the Senate's version of the measure relied on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make the water project selections, but republicans in the House argued that doing so would delegate too much responsibility for federal spending away from Congress," The Hill reported. 

"I am confident that we can work together to resolve our differences while maintaining strong support in both the House and Senate," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a conferee, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Water Online previously reported that 2013 House water infrastructure legislation included "$800 million to go toward flood protection projects in Fargo, ND, and Moorhead, MN; $461 million for expansion of a port in Savannah, GA; and up to $43 million for the San Clemente, CA shoreline."

Image credit: "The U.S. Capitol Building - Washington DC," © 2012 Glyn Lowe Photoworks, 2 Million Views, Thanks, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0. The image provided is a section of the original image.

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