The need for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure improvements has been well documented and discussed for decades. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts a drinking water and clean water needs assessment survey every four years. The most recently published data, the 2011 Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment, indicated a $384 billion total national infrastructure need for drinking water for the 20-year period between January 2011 and December 2030.
This estimate is conservative because only projects eligible to receive state revolving loan fund (SRF) money are included, so this funding excludes dams, raw water reservoirs, future growth and fire protection. Over the 20-year period, the bulk of the need will be for transmission and distribution projects. EPA’s most recent 2012 Clean Watersheds Needs Survey Report evaluated needs for publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) between January 2012 and December 2030 and reported a need of $271 billion. This includes needs for POTWs, combined sewer overflows, storm water management, and recycled water treatment and distribution. The American Water Works Assn. (AWWA) also conducted a survey and provided the results in the report, “Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge,” which identified a nationwide need of $1 trillion between 2011 and 2035.
These estimates aside, it is clear from the lead issues faced by the citizens of Flint, Mich., the annual harmful algal blooms that plague cities surrounding the Great Lakes and elsewhere in the country, the frequent disease outbreaks related to Legionella, and many other examples of drinking water and environmental contamination, that we still need to shore up the nation’s water infrastructure and fully ensure public health and environmental protection throughout this country.
Congress is aware of these issues and has been supportive of maintaining and even expanding funding for drinking water and clean water infrastructure. In addition to SRF funding, Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) of 2014, which established a federal credit program administered by EPA for eligible water and wastewater infrastructure projects. Eligible borrowers include local, state, tribal and federal government entities; partnerships and joint ventures; corporations and trusts; and clean water and drinking water SRF programs.
The WIFIA program can fund development and implementation activities for eligible projects, including SRF-eligible projects; enhanced energy efficiency projects at drinking water and wastewater facilities; brackish or seawater desalination, aquifer recharge, alternative water supply and water recycling projects; drought prevention, reduction or mitigation projects; acquisition of property if it is integral to the project or will mitigate the environmental impact of a project; and a combination of projects secured by a common security pledge or submitted under one application by an SRF program. Various development and implementation activities also are eligible.
The minimum project size is $20 million for large systems and $5 million for small communities. The funds will cover 49% of eligible project costs. The interest rate for the loans will be equal to or greater than the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s rate of similar maturity at the date of closing. EPA has called for projects and currently is reviewing applications for eligibility and determining which will receive funding.
The Trump Administration also has made it clear that infrastructure is a priority, though water is but a small piece of the bigger infrastructure conversation that includes dams, ports, bridges, roads, broadband, hospitals and more.
To elevate the water conversation, a number of water organizations and associations have joined together to create the Ad Hoc Water Infrastructure Group. The members of this group, which includes the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Assn., AWWA, the Water Environment Federation, the U.S. Water Alliance and numerous other water organizations, collectively developed a “Priorities for the Nation’s Water Infrastructure” document, released Nov. 2, 2017. The document identifies five priority areas, including:
1. Incentivizing partnership among water and wastewater systems, and the consolidation of failing water and wastewater systems;
2. Providing more federal funding through WIFIA, SRFs and technical assistance;
3. Encouraging more private sector participation and investment by eliminating barriers;
4. Modernizing and streamlining the SRFs; and
5. Accelerating the adoption of innovative technologies.
This group has taken a broader approach to infrastructure investment, calling for dramatic changes to the water sector to improve efficiency and operations to maximize the use of federal, state and local funding. On Nov. 2, 2017, the group held a successful Congressional Briefing on Water Infrastructure Policy on Capitol Hill and is planning to continue its efforts into 2018 to ensure that the voice of water infrastructure is included in the national infrastructure dialog and debate. All signs show that 2018 will indeed be the Year of Infrastructure, and we plan to ensure that water gets it fair share of recognition and funding.