Water Resources Bill is a Win for Cities

This week, Congress sent the president a comprehensive bipartisan water infrastructure bill. America’s Water Infrastructure Act (S. 3021) passed the House by voice vote and passed the Senate by a vote of 99-1. In a tense political climate leading up to the mid-term elections, the strong support for the bill in both chambers shows that infrastructure investments truly are a bipartisan issue. The nation’s cities couldn’t agree more.

America’s Water Infrastructure Act includes both the traditional authorization of flood control, navigation, and ecosystem restoration projects under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps), known as the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), as well as other water infrastructure and workforce development provisions that cities have advocated for as part of the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Rebuild and Reimagine America’s Infrastructure campaign.

Here are the main takeaways for cities from America’s Water Infrastructure Act.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers two-year project authorization cycle continues.

This is the third water resources bill that Congress has passed since 2014, continuing the traditional two-year authorization cycle for Army Corps projects. The bill authorizes $5.8 billion for 15 Army Corps projects related to navigation, flood control, and ecosystem restoration. Local governments own and manage much of this infrastructure, including ports and harbors, inland waterways, levees, and dams that protect public health and safety and our natural resources. WRDA is critical to helping our communities build, maintain, and improve this critical infrastructure, while growing our national and local economies.

WRDA 2018 infrastructure projectsThe bill authorizes additional money on modifications to other projects like those targeted at levee and dam safety, and expedites disaster mitigation projects in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and other areas impacted by natural disasters in 2017.

The bill also includes provisions to help ensure that dredged material is used or disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. It allows the Army Corps to grant a project a temporary easement for the beneficial reuse of dredged sediment to reduce storm damage to property and it increases the number of pilot projects for the beneficial use of dredged material from 10 to 20.

Finally, the bill provides greater opportunities for non-federal stakeholders, such as local governments, to engage with and provide input to the Army Corps on future and pending projects, annual budgeting and guidance documents. Regarding project financing, the bill creates a pilot program to allow projects that have been authorized but not funded to move forward with non-federal funding for reviews, inspections, certifications, studies, engineering, construction and other activities.

Upgrading our nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure and improving stormwater management a key priority.

America’s Water Infrastructure Act reauthorizes several existing water infrastructure financing mechanisms and authorizes a number of new grant opportunities for cities. Most notable is the reauthorization of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF)—for the first time in more than two decades—for three years at increasing funding levels, rising to $1.95 billion in FY2021, nearly double the current annual authorization.

Additionally, the bill reauthorizes the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) through FY21 at $50 million and removes the designation as a “pilot” program. WIFIA provides low-interest loans and loan guarantees for large water and wastewater-related infrastructure projects and activities (projects of at least $20 million or $5 million for communities serving less than 25,000 people). The bill also provides incentives for state financing authorities to leverage State Revolving Loan Fund financing with a WIFIA loan and jumpstarts the Army Corps WIFIA program by allowing EPA to serve as loan administrator, with Army Corps retaining authority over project selection.

Other grant programs authorized in the bill include:

  • Drinking Water System Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability Program – a grant program for the planning, design, construction, implementation, operation or maintenance of programs or projects to increase resilience to natural hazards (such as projects related to water use efficiency, modification/relocation of drinking water infrastructure, desalination facilities, and source water protection). Authorizes $4 million for each FY19 and FY20.
  • Creates a grant and technical assistance program for Lead Testing in School/Childcare Facilities to assist in identifying the source of lead contamination in drinking water at schools and childcare facilities and to assist with identifying grant opportunities for lead elimination. Authorizes $25 million for each FY19-21.
  • Establishes a grant program for Drinking Water Fountain Replacement in Schools for drinking water fountains manufactured prior to 1988. Authorizes $5 million for each FY19-21.
  • Creates a grant program for accelerating the development and deployment of innovative water technologies that address drinking water supply, quality, treatment, or security challenges of public water systems, areas served by private wells or source waters. Authorizes $10 million for each FY19 and FY20.
  • Sewer Overflow Control Grants to address sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows and stormwater, with 20 percent set aside for green infrastructure, and water and energy efficiency projects. Authorizes $225 million for each FY19 and FY20

As Congress looks to complete the FY19 appropriations bills after the mid-term elections and as the Administration develops a budget proposal for FY20, NLC will advocate for funding for these important water infrastructure programs.

The bill includes several other water infrastructure provisions:

  • Codifies the WaterSense program focused on water efficiency, which President Trump’s FY18 and FY19 budgets proposed to eliminate.
  • Creates a liaison within each EPA regional office for minority, low-income and tribal communities.
  • Creates a Stormwater Infrastructure Funding Task Force to include state and local officials to study and develop recommendations to improve the availability of public and private sources of funding for stormwater infrastructure.

Workforce development and training to support infrastructure investments is needed.

Nationally, one third of water and wastewater utility workers are eligible for retirement in the next five to ten years, far exceeding workforce replacement needs in other sectors. In some cities, such as San Francisco, that figure jumps to 50-60 percent of the workforce. This is of particular concern for mission-critical jobs, such as the skilled trades, because utility operations rely on those qualified staff around the clock. To address this workforce challenge, the America’s Water Infrastructure Act establishes a competitive grant program for workforce training and development within the water sector, authorizing $1 million for each FY19 and FY20. The competitive grant program will help train workers to build and repair water systems throughout the country, while providing pathways to careers with competitive wages and benefits.  NLC strongly advocated for the inclusion of this bipartisan program within the bill to ensure that cities can build and maintain their water workforce, enabling the provision of safe drinking water and wastewater systems, for years to come.

There is still more work to be done.

Two priorities that NLC advocated for are not included in the bill. First, NLC supports provisions that would ensure the full allocation of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF) for its intended purpose of harbor maintenance. Taxes levied against importers and domestic shippers using ports and harbors in coastal and Great Lakes areas have created a large surplus in the HMTF, but only a portion is appropriated by Congress every year for operations and maintenance of the nation’s harbors.

Second, NLC continues to urge Congress to codify the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Integrated Planning Framework to allow local governments and water utilities to meet their requirements under the Clean Water Act in an efficient and cost-effective manner through the sequencing and scheduling of projects.

While the passage of America’s Water Infrastructure Act is a milestone that cities celebrate, we look forward to partnering with members of Congress to address these and other water infrastructure priorities.

About the Author: Carolyn Berndt is the program director for infrastructure and sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.