By Peter Chawaga
The Obama administration released a 2017 budget proposal last month that was at once effusively praised and unabashedly maligned. Whatever side will ultimately be vindicated, the plan has serious implications for the future of water funding.
While the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, a federal program providing financial support to state drinking water safety, saw its budget increased by $157 million in the proposal, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) had its cut by $414 million. This combination was condemned as merely a “shell game” by Senator Jim Inhofe, as reported by our Sara Jerome.
Communities across the country have been taking advantage of the CWSRF since it was established by Congress as part of 1987’s Water Quality Act. It serves as a source of low-cost financing for water quality infrastructure projects and has offered over $65 billion of assistance over the years. Few communities are left unaware of the fund and its potential, but competition for the dollars may stiffen.
On February 10, the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) held the webinar “Innovative Uses of CWSRF.” The timely presentation provided ammunition for those who would defend the program in the face of proposed cuts.
“Certainly there is always interest in the CWSRF, it is one of the most successful infrastructure investment programs in recent history,” said Alex Dunn, executive director and general counsel of ECOS. “Our timing was good in that it followed the president’s budget release when there tends to be more questions about how much is sought for the CWSRF and what it accomplishes for water quality. The webinar was a great way to show the value of the federal contribution to the CWSRF and how states and municipalities stretch these dollars at the local level to yield many beneficial results to the public.”
It also offered utilities around the country the chance to reconsider their own hopes for accessing federal dollars in ways they may have not thought possible.
“There is such significant need for traditional infrastructure… so some unique uses of the CWSRF may not get to the top of priority lists,” Dunn said. “The webinar showed how unique uses of the CWSRF can fit within even more traditional projects.”
Attendees were given details on three projects that utilized the fund in creative and effective ways. There was a state-wide project in Montana that avoided costly plant upgrades by offering additional educational programs for wastewater treatment operators.
“The Montana project really shows that investing in training can often be as important as retrofitting and highlights the value of involving operators in finding and carrying out creative solutions,” said Dunn.
West Monroe, LA, used the funds to upgrade a wastewater treatment plant to meet the specific needs of an area manufacturer. By working closely with the factory, the city was able to identify, test, and install an upgrade solution to match the industrial input needs.
“The West Monroe project shows that industries can be great partners with local communities and boost the local economy while advancing water quality for everyone,” Dunn said.
In Camden City, NJ, the city implemented green and gray infrastructure projects to combat stormwater and combined sewer overflow problems by forging a partnership between the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority and other government bodies and non-profits.
“The Camden County project really impressed webinar attendees because of its transformation effect on an environmental justice community,” said Dunn.
While the initial details got attendees thinking outside of the box when it comes to accessing government money, more details on the practical steps for doing so won’t be available until ECOS releases a report on CWSRF applications later this month. Dunn said that it will include projects with innovations in non-point source control, technical assistance, flexible financing terms, and more.
Hopefully creative and effective projects will continue to flourish despite the potential cutbacks.