Last week, I had the privilege of giving a federal policy update at the Texas Water conference in Ft. Worth. As part of my presentation, I asked audience members to shout out the first word that came to mind when they thought about Washington, DC and Congress. “Dysfunction,” “broken,” and “polarized” were among the favorites – along with some juicier words that are not fit to publish. Unsurprisingly, the perception of Congress as a completely inept institution incapable of addressing the nation’s pressing water needs was alive and well outside of the Beltway.
But in a strange and unforeseen twist of fate, developments this week suggest that the stars may actually be aligning for Congress to pursue what would be some of the most far-reaching and significant changes to the Clean Water Act (CWA) in recent memory – in particular, changes that could immensely benefit municipal clean water utilities. And why this sudden sense of optimism, you may ask? Because of one bill – the Senate’s proposed 2016 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
Released by the Senate’s Environment & Public Works Committee on April 25, the WRDA proposal is a bold, bipartisan bill that begins to make much needed changes to the CWA, many of which NACWA has been advocating for years and that would substantially aid municipal clean water utilities in meeting their environmental and public health goals. Among other things, the proposed bill would:
- Establish, for the first time, a Clean Water Trust Fund. The Fund would be initially funded by contributions from a voluntary labeling system;
- Require EPA to conduct a study on the potential role of low-income assistance programs to support full cost pricing for water and sewer rates;
- Establish a municipal ombudsman within the EPA to advocate on behalf of municipalities;
- Require EPA to update its 1997 affordability guidance;
- Codify EPA’s Integrated Planning Framework in the CWA;
- Codify the use of compliance schedules, when used in conjunction with an integrated plan, to achieve water quality standards in the CWA;
- Direct EPA to further promote the use of green infrastructure for compliance obligations;
- Authorize $1.8 billion for the CWA’s sewer overflow control grant program to address CSO, SSO, and stormwater discharges;
- Authorize, in the wake of Flint, $300 million in new funding to reduce lead in drinking water;
- Authorize $50 million a year for innovative water technology grants, including for water reuse/water recycling, and authorize an additional $48 million for water desalinization programs; and,
- Establish non-regulatory national drought resilience guidelines related to drought preparedness planning and investments.
In short, many of NACWA’s legislative priorities from recent years are included in this proposed bill. And while NACWA has worked hard to advance these concepts, the true credit for securing such a landmark legislative proposal lies with the many NACWA members that have worked tirelessly over the years to inform their elected representatives about the importance of these issues. While the Senate EPW Committee’s proposal is just the first step in a much longer process towards enactment, it is an important step — and one that we all can be proud of.
NACWA applauds Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate EPW Committee, and their staff for putting together such an ambitious and innovative WRDA proposal. Sen. Inhofe and Sen. Boxer have been strong proponents for the municipal clean water community, especially on infrastructure funding issues, and we thank them for their bipartisan leadership on these important efforts. NACWA is also thankful for the leadership and commitment on the part of three key Senate champions who worked closely with Committee leaders to get this done, including Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ).
It seems strange to think that, in a year when politics at the national level has been more dysfunctional than ever, Congress may actually be moving towards significant and needed CWA reforms. But with Sens. Inhofe and Boxer leaving leadership roles on EPW at the end of this year – and thus motivated to pass a meaningful WRDA bill – and key leaders in the House of Representatives also committed to passing WRDA legislation, the time could be right for true legislative progress.
There is clearly more work to be done – including passage of the bill in the Senate, introduction and passage of a House bill, and then a likely conference committee to work out differences between the two chambers. And NACWA and its members will need to be key advocates during this process. But it is not unreasonable to think a WRDA bill could reach the President’s desk later this year – and I believe, with hard advocacy work on the part of the clean water community, there is a better than even chance that many of the key elements from the Senate proposal will be included in a final bill. It may end up being a very exciting legislative year on water issues after all!