By Peter Chawaga, Associate Editor, Water Online
Though they can at times find themselves at odds, federal regulators and water/wastewater utilities share a common desire. Both want communities in need of infrastructure improvements to have easy and streamlined access to the federal funds available for financing them.
“The implications of aging and deteriorating infrastructure can be felt nationwide,” said a spokesperson from the U.S. EPA. “Approximately $2.6 billion each year in water system expenses are lost as water mains leak trillions of gallons of treated drinking water. Additionally, every year, billions of gallons of raw sewage are discharged into local surface waters from aging wastewater conveyance systems.”
Though much has been made of the nation’s neglect toward water and wastewater infrastructure, the EPA points to considerable funds ($10 billion, according to a recent press release) available for those projects that qualify. To help utilities access these funds, the agency has recently established a Water Finance Clearinghouse, an online tool that communities can utilize to search for available funding sources and reports on financing mechanisms and approaches that can best lead to access of federal capital.
“The creation of the Water Finance Clearinghouse was inspired by demand from the water sector,” said the spokesperson. “EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center often meets with local communities and utilities that are struggling to identify sources of funding and financing for water infrastructure. In the past, the EPA has directed communities to a variety of disparate websites and databases that contained pieces of what funding was available.”
With a central portal pointing utilities to all federal, state, local, non-governmental, and private funding sources, the agency is confident that progress can be made on the seemingly insurmountable infrastructure funding gap.
“According to the EPA’s estimate of drinking water and wastewater needs, over $600 billion is needed for water infrastructure improvements over the next 20 years,” said the spokesperson. “Communities increasingly need efficient access to up-to-date water finance information to rehabilitate or replace their water infrastructure. The Water Finance Clearinghouse meets that need.”
The clearinghouse was assembled over the course of nine months, beginning in November of last year. The design and functionality of the site was developed based on briefings with “key stakeholders” and beta testing began in April. The goals were to make sure the site functioned properly; get feedback on the content, functionality, and design; recruit contributors and teach funding agencies how to use the site; and to verify the content before it went public. Over 1,500 stakeholders tested the site during its beta phase and the EPA said that feedback was exclusively positive.
The resulting product, launched in late July, is fairly straightforward to use, but utilities should keep some functions in mind as they assess their potential funding resources.
A resources tab leads users to the case studies, tools, and guides available to help plan pre-development activities like financial planning, rate setting, and asset management. It can also help a utility figure out which financing mechanism will be the best fit, whether that be a public-private-partnership formula, bond issuing, a loan, or something else. The funds tab takes users to the list of funding opportunities they might be eligible for. It offers contact information for many of the sources it lists. There is also an interactive map that serves as a way to localize the funding search.
“The map search feature allows users to quickly narrow down the scope of their search to a particular state or region,” the agency spokesperson said. “Most funding sources are local- or state-based. We wanted to provide a number of different ways for users to be able to search the clearinghouse and the map-search feature was a logical option.”
The EPA also recommends that interested utilities become “general users,” an account on the clearinghouse that allows them to mark favorite resources and funding sources and refer back to them later.
“General users can also subscribe to receive email notifications when new resources or funding sources are added to the clearinghouse,” the EPA spokesperson said. “General users decide which filters they want to receive notifications for. For example, a community in Oklahoma may want to subscribe to receive an email notification when a new funding source for Oklahoma communities is added to the clearinghouse.”
Funding organizations are also encouraged to join the site as contributors, which allows them to suggest edits to the content, additions of new resources and funding sources, or the removal of outdated information. The EPA will be conducting yearly analysis of the clearinghouse to check for broken links and necessary information updates.
With engagement from communities and contributors, this may provide a whole new common ground for infrastructure funding.
Image credit: "Bank Vaults under Hotels in Toronto, Ontario," Jason Baker, 2013, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/