The Fight for Funding
Continued cuts in federal subsidies for clean water systems are calling attention to a looming crisis
- By Ken Kirk, Adam Krantz
- Mar 01, 2006
Nearly 35 years have passed since the historic enactment of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972. And thanks to the hard work of the nation's municipal clean water agencies, great gains have been made during that time. Yet, three decades since the CWA's enactment, we are still far from the "zero discharge" and swimmable/fishable goals of the CWA. More than 40 percent of the nation's waters remain impaired, and the challenges to continued progress grow increasingly complex.
Whereas in 1972 our population was 203 million, today it is 298 million. It is expected to rise to more than 400 million by 2050. This growth is matched by the expansion of the industrial sector, placing an ever-increasing demand on the nation's municipal clean water agencies. New and costly federal mandates are being placed on municipalities, adding further to the scramble for capital. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the control of combined and sanitary sewer overflows will cost the nation's municipalities nearly $60 billion and $90 billion respectively. In addition, there are many emerging pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, that utilities are increasingly being called on to monitor and remove from the waste stream. Although new treatment technologies are being developed that can address existing and emerging water quality challenges, including advanced treatment not contemplated by the CWA, they are extraordinarily expensive.
Further complicating this issue is the consensus about a significant and growing gap between what local governments currently invest in water infrastructure and what they need to invest to make further progress in achieving water quality goals. EPA, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) all have performed their own independent studies of the nation's water infrastructure funding needs. Their estimates show a startling consensus of an estimated gap of $350 billion to $600 billion dollars over the next 20 years to repair and replace aging pipes and treatment works.
This capital vacuum must be filled but, as a result of its magnitude, there are limited options to address it in a viable manner. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) has long maintained that the only way to bridge the gap is via a multi-faceted approach that includes improved utility management, rate increases at the local level, and additional research and technology complemented with a long-term, sustainable federal recommitment to investing in the nation's infrastructure.
This article focuses on this federal recommitment and argues that the success of the CWA is, above all else, a model of what a sustainable local-state-federal partnership can accomplish. In line with this model, on Dec. 15, 2005, Representative John J. Duncan, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment, introduced the Clean Water Trust Act of 2005 (H.R. 4560), which would create a $38 billion trust fund for clean water. This legislation demonstrates that the concept of such a partnership under the CWA is alive and well and can again become a reality. (The bill can be accessed on the Library of Congress Web site, http://thomas.loc.gov ).
Federal Government's Past Support of Clean Water Projects -- A Model for the Future
Over the past 50 years, the federal government has taken pioneering steps to improve water quality throughout the country. This includes the passage of the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which sought to "recognize, preserve, and protect the primary responsibility . . . of the States in controlling water pollution" and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendment of 1972, today more commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act (CWA). Both pieces of legislation sought to protect and improve the quality of the nation's waters. The CWA spawned the creation of the Construction Grants Program (CGP), which provided unprecedented federal funding to meet these goals by building a nationwide network of wastewater treatment facilities. As a direct result of the CGP, which provided over $60 billion to build a national network of wastewater treatment plants, the United States now enjoys perhaps the most advanced system of regional or "area-wide" wastewater treatment entities in the world. Secondary treatment is now the norm, and many treatment plants have progressed beyond secondary to advanced treatment technologies. However, in the late 1980s, at precisely the time the national commitment should have been cemented, Congress and the administration decided to phase out the CGP and replace it with a loan program -- the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF).
The Loan Program Helps, but Not Enough to Address Growing Funding Needs
The CWSRF was initially developed with the intent of continuing the core infrastructure funding goals of the CGP, namely to help build sewage treatment plants. CWSRF eligibilities, however, were ultimately expanded well beyond core infrastructure into other areas, such as nonpoint source control.
Despite the overall success of the CWSRF, it was clear from the outset that this revenue source was under-funded, particularly for the needs of major metropolitan areas. Although funding for the CWSRF was originally authorized through 1994, Congress continued to fund the program, arguing that the intent was to have the fund revolve at $2 billion per year. But now that this milestone has been reached, and taking into account successive cuts of $260 million in Fiscal Year 2005 (FY 2005) and $195 million in Fiscal Year 2006 (FY 2006), many observers believe that the federal government is now signaling its intent to fully withdraw from the clean water funding arena. This lack of federal investment -- at exactly the time that aging plants across the country are most in need of a continued partnership -- marks the need for a dedicated national trust fund that will ensure a revitalized local-state-federal partnership to support critical clean water projects.
The federal government's decision to withdraw funding at the precise moment that consensus has been reached about the looming funding crisis, is puzzling and ominous. According to EPA, 2003 marks the first year since passage of the 1972 CWA that overall water quality in the United States has deteriorated. More importantly, the Agency is warning policymakers that the failure to address this gap now may very well result in a return to pre-CWA levels of water impairment, potentially by as early as 2016.
Public, Congressional Support for Trust Fund Grows
Recent polling unambiguously demonstrates the view that the public demands the federal government be engaged in clean water infrastructure investment. In March 2005, Frank Luntz, renowned pollster and communications expert, teamed with Penn, Schoen and Berland Inc., to perform one national and 10 statewide surveys regarding the public's views on clean water. These surveys demonstrated that 91 percent of Americans agree that federal investment in clean water is as, if not more, important than federal investment in highways and airways, for which there are already trust funds of over $30 billion and $9 billion respectively; 88 percent of Americans agree that clean water has no local boundaries, and the same 88 percent would support a clean water trust fund bill if one was introduced in Congress; 77 percent of Americans agree that they would rather the federal government increase spending for clean water than on entitlement programs; and 67 percent agree they would rather see increased federal spending on clean water than on tax cuts. This broad support for a national recommitment to clean water transcended political party, geography, age, and gender lines.
It was similarly broad support that led to the enactment of the CWA in 1972. The public spotlight shone on several notorious examples of water impairment, including the Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969, Lake Erie having been declared a "dead zone," and in Capitol Hill's own backyard, the Potomac River being referred to as a "sewer to the sea." These water bodies became the symbols of a public movement clamoring for Congressional action, and they put the environment at the top of the national priority list. Millions of Americans participated in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, making it clear that elected officials would be judged on their environmental positions and votes come election time.
With the consensus on the funding gap, as well as public support for a renewed federal commitment, clear, Rep. John J. Duncan (R-TN), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, convened a pivotal June 8, 2005, hearing on the clean water trust fund concept.
Subcommittee members on both sides of the aisle demonstrated a keen interest in the trust fund concept and expressed a desire to begin an in-depth discussion on how to get this done.
The hearing constituted a critical step toward the introduction and passage of legislation to create a clean water trust fund. In fact, before the year was over, Duncan introduced landmark legislation -- The Clean Water Trust Act of 2005 (H.R. 4560) -- that will profoundly reshape the clean water funding debate
The Clean Water Trust Act of 2005 -- A Path Forward
In the decades following the enactment of the CWA, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, shifting priorities -- whether defense spending, homeland security, disaster relief, or other competing issues -- made it impossible to rely on the general revenue for consistent funding.
In other critical infrastructure areas -- such as highways and airports -- the trend is clear; this local-state-federal partnership manifests itself through long-term, dedicated trust funds. Water infrastructure undoubtedly deserves no less than our roads or airports. As a result of efforts by a broad and growing alliance of stakeholder groups, the nation is a major step closer to benefiting from a dedicated trust fund of its own.
On Dec. 15, 2005, a network of nearly two dozen key groups,1 succeeded in recasting the clean water debate with Duncan's introduction of the landmark Clean Water Trust Act of 2005. This bill would provide nearly $38 billion over five years for loans and grants to clean water projects via the creation of a Clean Water Trust Fund, similar to those that already exist for highways and airports.
Most significantly, the Clean Water Trust Act of 2005 establishes a federal Clean Water Trust Fund that would provide approximately $7.5 billion annually from FY 2006 through FY 2010, or total funding of nearly $38 billion, to local communities to address clean water infrastructure needs. In addition to ensuring the viability of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) by providing $1.5 billion to the CWSRF -- nearly double the current level of the loan program -- the bill targets $4.5 billion per year in grants for high priority projects to upgrade the nation's clean water infrastructure. Additional funding is also targeted for sewer overflow control grants ($250 million), research and technology ($295 million), a utility management center ($5 million), technical assistance for rural and small systems ($50 million), state management assistance ($250 million), fisheries enhancement ($250 million), wetlands program grants ($100 million), regional programs ($250 million), watershed pilot programs ($20 million), and alternative water source pilot projects ($120 million).
NACWA and a growing group of supporters, believes H.R. 4560 offers the most realistic method of building on the success of the local-state-federal partnership that was so successful under the CWA.
Unless we move forward today and rebuild a true partnership with the federal, state, and local governments, the funding gap will only widen, and the nation's water quality will deteriorate. These outcomes are simply unacceptable. They were unacceptable in 1972 when Congress passed the CWA, and they are no less acceptable today as we ponder the prospect of losing ground in our battle to protect the nation's water quality.
H.R. 4560 offers a key component that complements ongoing rate increases and consistently improved utility management to help solve the growing clean water funding gap.
Visit www.nacwa.org to learn more about the NACWA and its work to secure long-term dedicated funding for clean and safe water. Also visit the Clean Water America Web site ( www.cleanwateramerica.org ) and add your name as a supporter of a federal recommitment to clean water funding via a trust fund.
1 The Associated General Contractors of America, Ducks Unlimited, National Association of Towns and Townships, American Society of Civil Engineers, Western Coalition of Arid States, Rural Community Assistance Partnership, National Association of Clean Water Agencies, American Sportfishing Association, American Council of Engineering Companies, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Construction Management Association of America, International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Design Build Institute of America, Trout Unlimited, Underground Contractors Association, Plastics Pipe Institute, American Concrete Pressure Pipe Association, and the American Supply Association.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Water & Wastewater Products, Vol. 6, No. 2.
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.