Even during a period of remarkable political divide, most of us can agree that the wastewater treatment industry faces mounting cost and labor challenges and that some legislative changes will be necessary in order to help them stay afloat.
Issues with aging infrastructure and increased regulatory burdens are particularly acute among the nation’s small and rural wastewater systems, those serving 10,000 or fewer, which struggle to secure the necessary funding and technical expertise to remain compliant. A recent bipartisan effort to help these systems has emerged in the form of Bill S. 518, the “Small and Rural Community Clean Water Technical Assistance Act.”
The legislation seeks to authorize new technical assistance provisions under the Clean Water Act (CWA), establishing a $15 million, five-year, U.S. EPA-administered program to assist small, public wastewater treatment systems in complying with CWA regulations. It would also authorize states that utilize federal state revolving funds (SRFs) for clean water to use up to 2 percent of those grants to fund technical assistance for small, local wastewater treatment works.
“Small and rural communities want to provide safe water and meet all drinking water standards and on-site technical assistance gives them the shared technical resources to achieve it,” said Mike Keegan of the National Rural Water Association (NRWA), a utility membership association that supports the legislation. “Most small communities in noncompliance with the CWA can be quickly remedied by onsite technical assistance and education.”
For instance, Keegan mentioned the City of Easthampton, MA, which was recently close to violating its CWA wastewater discharge permit. The city needed help in understanding how it could comply with its permits in a practical way, so it reached out for on-site technical assistance from a “circuit rider,” an operational expert that visits plants with the ability to remedy specific problems, similar to the type of professional that would visit plants under S. 518.
“The circuit rider educated the community that its aeration tanks were not getting enough bacteria returned in their treatment process to create good effluent because the electrical controls were not operating correctly,” said Keegan. “After manually calibrating the pumps and improving the environment in the aeration basin, the treatment had improved and the suspended solids were no longer exiting the plant.”
By fixing the problem, Easthampton avoided fines that could have totaled $5,000 per day. S. 518 seeks to expand similar solutions to thousands of small and rural utilities around the country.
The proposal has gained support from both sides of the aisle, with Senator Roger F. Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, leading the effort along with seven Democratic and six Republican cosponsors. This bipartisan support will be a key in moving the legislation along in today’s divided political climate.
“We are hoping for expedited passage in Congress, but nothing moves too fast through Congress,” Keegan said. “We think [this legislation] can be expedited because it has broad bipartisan support and it is narrow in scope to allow it to quickly move through the necessary committees and to a vote in both the House and Senate.”
The bill was introduced to the Senate by Wicker in early March. Last month the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works voted to issue a report to the full chamber, a step that is taken for only one out of every four bills, recommending that it be considered further. The NRWA expects a vote on the Senate floor this spring and, if it passes, it will move to the House of Representatives.
“Both Senator Wicker and the cosponsor Senator Heitkamp [Democrat from North Dakota] have become two of the lead advocates for rural and small communities in the U.S. Senate, championing many important initiatives,” said Keegan. “Both are very familiar with their states’ small and rural communities, the people in those communities, and the issues important to those communities. This makes them very supportive of our constituency and willing to lead important policy initiatives in Washington.”
Some critics of the potential law may point out that several subsidy programs already exist to help wastewater utilities satisfy their regulatory requirements, most notably the Water Infrastructure and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which can pay for up to 49 percent of an eligible infrastructure project. This program, however, is not well suited for the types of minor, hands-on technical guidance that many rural wastewater operations require.
“WIFIA is not a solution for small and rural communities because it is limited to very large projects and requires applicants to be investment-worthy,” said Keegan. “The problem with WIFIA is that it does not require that federal subsidies are directed to the most-needy water projects in the country. So, the effect of WIFIA is to allow a community with greater ability to afford a water project to receive a federal water funding subsidy at the expense of a community with more economic need. This is typically, not always, a small or rural community water project.”
If S. 518 passes, finding compliance assistance for small utilities could become as easy as approaching SRF agencies and asking them for help. To make this potential a reality, interested parties should begin soliciting their local lawmakers.
“[They should] encourage their senators to become cosponsors of the legislation and urge their senators to move the bill to a vote before the full Senate,” Keegan said. “Once this occurs, the pace of passing the bill should increase when senators and House members see a clear path to final passage and enactment.”