NLC Tells Congress to Address Aging Water Infrastructure, Financing Needs

February 19, 2013

By Carolyn Berndt

Last week, in a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Environment and Economy, Michael Sesma, Council Member from Gaithersburg, Maryland testified before Congress that the nation's water infrastructure is aging and that cities face a backlog of projects and funding challenges that were only made worse by the recent economic downturn.

"Like other communities, much of Gaithersburg's water infrastructure is beyond its expected design life and is in need of substantial funding to address our existing system needs," said Sesma.

Moreover, cities and towns across the country continue to have concerns about the affordability of meeting Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements, as well as the increasing number of unfunded federal mandates imposed on local governments. "In Gaithersburg, the implementation of stormwater management programs has a direct impact on the quality of water in the streams and rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. A healthy, clean Chesapeake Bay is vital to the economic health of the Mid-Atlantic States. While the federal mandates of the [Clean Water Act] may be necessary to maintain and improve water quality, they do not come without a high cost to local governments and taxpayers," continued Sesma.

He asked the committee to "lead and serve the country by addressing the underlying issue of aging infrastructure and unmet infrastructure needs. This effort will strengthen the intergovernmental partnership by enabling our cities and towns, our states, and country to meet the challenges and opportunities of leading the world into the next century."

NLC called on Congress to support existing and new financing mechanisms for funding water infrastructure projects-including preserving the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds, which help fund three-quarters of the infrastructure projects in the U.S. built by state and local governments, and to prioritize funding for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund programs.

In response to a question from Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) about the impact to cities of the automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, scheduled to go into effect on March 1, Sesma said that the cuts would be devastating to cities and the programs and services they offer, including likely delaying infrastructure projects and deferring facility maintenance and equipment replacement. Additionally, cities would have to decide whether to raise taxes or fees or create new fees to generate revenue.

While the hearing was titled "The Role of States in Protecting the Environment Under Current Law," Sesma also testified on the importance of local governments in implementing federal environmental protection programs. Cities serve as implementers of state and federal environmental policies and programs and have authority over local land use, zoning, and code development. Local governments, like Gaithersburg, are at the forefront of sustainability in planning, taking actions to make our communities vibrant places to live, work, learn and play.

NLC's testimony also stressed the importance of the intergovernmental partnership, siting examples of positive steps that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken in recent years that have renewed and strengthened the federal-state-local partnership. The first, relating to the federalism consultation process, was in 2008 when EPA lowered its threshold from $100 million to $25 million for triggering the state and local consultation process. This has resulted in earlier and more regular consultation with and local governments on issues of mutual importance to the quality of life in our nation's communities and the fiscal impacts of those decisions.

Second, under the Administration's regulatory reform and review initiative, EPA recently allowed community water systems to electronically deliver Consumer Confidence Reports to customers, saving water utilities and taxpayers significant costs associated with printing and mailing these large documents. As cities and towns continue to recover from the economic downturn, NLC applauded this action as a welcome means of lessening the financial burden on local governments.

Finally, NLC reiterated its support for EPA's Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework (Framework, June 2012) and recent memorandum on Assessing Financial Capability for Municipal Clean Water Act Requirements (January 2013), which acknowledge that many local governments face difficult financial conditions that impact their ability to meet CWA obligations.

The integrated planning framework is aimed at helping state and local governments identify opportunities to achieve clean water by controlling and managing releases of wastewater and stormwater runoff in an efficient and cost effective manner through the sequencing, scheduling and prioritization of projects. Building on the integrated planning framework, over the course of this year, NLC will be participating in an affordability dialogue with EPA, local elected officials, and local government organizations on how the financial capability of a community will be considered when developing schedules for municipal projects necessary to meet CWA requirements.

Sesma is a past chair of the NLC Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee and currently serves on NLC Board of Directors.