As associate legislative director of the National Association of Counties (NACo), Erik Johnston works with the nation’s rural counties on legislative issues. A major area of focus is infrastructure funding and financing. Johnston spoke with WWD Associate Editor Elizabeth Lisican about the ongoing challenges regarding water and wastewater funding and financing, and the somber realities that lie ahead.
Elizabeth Lisican: How does the work you do with rural counties on legislative issues tie into water and wastewater treatment?
Erik Johnston: I work as staff liaison to NACo’s Rural Action Caucus (RAC). NACo’s bipartisan RAC serves as the voice of America’s rural counties before Congress and the administration. Supporting USDA Rural Development’s programs in the Farm Bill and appropriations processes is a key priority for NACo’s RAC. USDA Rural Development funds a broad range of programs that are critical to rural counties. These programs include funding for water and wastewater infrastructure, community facilities, broadband, electric, telephone, housing, renewable energy and business development.
Our rural counties consistently rank USDA Rural Development’s water and wastewater infrastructure programs as one of the key programs utilized by their communities. We consistently call on Congress to support this funding, which is critical to the economic future of our rural counties.
Lisican: What major challenges is USDA Rural Development facing in terms of water/wastewater financing and funding?
Johnston: Nearly all federal programs funded through the annual congressional appropriations process have been cut substantially in the past two years, and these programs face even greater cuts in the future. USDA Rural Development’s investments have already made a disproportionate contribution to deficit reduction, as investments in this critical area have fallen by nearly one-third since 2003. These huge cuts to Rural Development come at a time when the rural communities and individuals we represent most need access to the agency’s grants and loans. Action to reverse this decline in funding and the impending deeper cuts signaled by the discretionary spending targets of the Budget Control Act (BCA) are critical to helping rural individuals create and sustain vibrant rural communities and regions.
NACo is advocating that the joint federal deficit committee, or so-called “supercommittee,” consider all expenditures, including defense, foreign aid and federal entitlement reform, along with other domestic spending. Additionally, revenue enhancements should not be left “off the table.” Although reducing discretionary domestic spending is part of the answer, it cannot—and should not—be the only sector that is considered. If there is to be pain, it must be shared. This type of approach is critical if key infrastructure investments, such as water and wastewater financing, are to be spared from drastic cuts.
NACo also leads the Campaign for a Renewed Rural Development, which is a collaboration of 32 national organizations with a strong interest in the future of small-town and rural America. Our organizations are working individually and collectively to support rural development programs and strategies that promote rural prosperity. The campaign is working to highlight the need for key infrastructure investments as water and wastewater projects in the appropriations process.
Lisican: Where do you see water and wastewater infrastructure funding and financing trends headed in the coming years?
Johnston: The reality is that federal assistance for water and wastewater infrastructure funding and financing will decrease over the next decade. The recently passed BCA backloaded cuts. Therefore, in the coming years you will see increasing percentage cuts, with the highest cuts to come 10 years out. A concerted effort to highlight the critical nature of key water and wastewater infrastructure investments is needed to help minimize cuts.
More support is needed to secure U.S. water infrastructure