From The Editor | November 22, 2013

Congress And Water: Much Ado About Nothing In 2013


By Kevin Westerling,

If Congress were to get a grade for their recent work on water and wastewater matters, it would be “incomplete.” Here’s what they did (or didn’t) get done in Washington this year.

It’s no secret that Congress is not well-liked, evidenced by their dismal approval ratings. The reason, in large part, is ineffectiveness (due to a variety of factors — infighting chief among them). The theme has held true in the water industry this year; of the 30 water/wastewater bills set before Congress in 2013, only three have seen action.

An update on the slow-moving legislative scene was given at a recent meeting of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA), which tracks and advocates for policy they see as beneficial to the water industry.

Here is the latest update on the three initiatives that saw action in 2013, as presented by WWEMA’s president Dawn Kristof Champney.

Chesapeake Bay Accountability And Recovery Act [H.R. 739; S. 1000]

With the Chesapeake Bay on an EPA-imposed “pollution diet” — a total maximum daily load (TMDL) of nutrient and sediment discharges — both the House of Representatives and Senate have recognized the need for accountability as to how money is being spent. The information will also provide an increased understanding of “Best Bay Practices” to inform future restoration efforts — not just for the Bay, but for nutrient-impaired waters nationwide.

House and Senate versions of the bill are both in the committee stage of the legislative process.

EPA Hydraulic Fracturing Study Improvement Act [H.R. 2850]

Among the most controversial topics touching water/wastewater is the effect of hydraulic fracturing, AKA “fracking,” on groundwater resources. H.R. 2850, introduced in August, is designed to strengthen and improve the EPA’s ongoing study of the natural gas extraction process by adding “objective risk assessment.” According to Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the bill will “provide context to any identified risks” and “limit the possibility that findings will be misinterpreted or misused.”

In more plain language, Kristof Champney explains that the bill requires the EPA to not only report the likelihood that hydraulic fracturing has some impact on drinking water, but also to determine the probability and the consequences. “We don't want you just giving us a hypothetical ‘it could,’ we want you to give us a definitive ‘it will,’” she interprets.

The bill has passed through the House committee stage and awaits action on the House floor. It currently has no Senate counterpart.

Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRDA) [H.R. 3080; S. 601]

WRDA, which is designed to create funding for water projects, has had different versions pass in the House and the Senate that will need to be worked out in conference.  “Even if it becomes law, it only authorizes funding of these projects,” noted Kristof Champney.  “It must then go through the broken down appropriations process, meaning only a fraction of the money promised may ever be spent,” she opined.  

The Senate version incorporates a Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA) provision to address projects $20 million or larger. It also comes with a “Buy American” clause, which has both proponents and detractors (WWEMA among the latter). The WIFIA provision has been opposed in writing by at least 22 states, partly over fears that it will disenfranchise the State Revolving Funds (SRF) program. WIFIA supporters, however, have registered support of the SRF program and view WIFIA as a complementary, not conflicting, program.

There is also said to be interest for WIFIA in the House, but Kristof Champney reports that the House wanted to pass a “clean” bill and address WIFIA separately. The subject will be debated by a conference committee — likely carrying over into early next year — before the role of WIFIA is agreed upon.

Unfortunately, Congress proved very good at pushing items off in 2013. WWEMA will be very engaged in pushing the agenda forward once again in 2014 — they’ll take part in April’s “Water Matters! Fly-In” — with hope anew that Congress can finally come together to provide support for America’s water and wastewater systems. If we’re to rebuild, secure, and maintain our vulnerable infrastructure, a do-nothing Congress won’t do at all.