WRDA: A Bipartisan Infrastructure Achievement in Budget and Appropriations, Infrastructure

Many had high hopes that the 115th Congress would pass a comprehensive infrastructure bill. Sadly, those hopes were quickly dashed when instead Congress again opted to consider the much more partisan issue of health care reform. Yet this week’s passage of a bipartisan WRDA bill by a vote of 99 to 1 in the Senate demonstrates that the potential of infrastructure to bring members of different political stripes together and Congress’s ability to put policy ahead of politics.

America needs $2 trillion to meet its ever-growing infrastructure needs. The Water Resources Development Act of 2018 (WRDA), an authorization bill, does not even begin to dent that number. However, it does advance several critical policy goals, many of which were recommended by BPC’s Executive Council on Infrastructure.

Water Affordability

BPC’s Executive Council on Infrastructure’s report, Understanding Americas Water and Wastewater Challenges, lays out the issues facing water and wastewater systems including aging facilities and pipes, shrinking populations, growing regulatory burdens and the political inability to increase rates sufficient to cover service. Ideally, local water and wastewater rates would cover the ‘full cost of service;’ however, most local utilities are overseen by elected city councils who do not want to enrage voters with rate increases. Further, all cities from large metropolises to small towns are home to significant low-income populations that cannot afford to pay more.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the water rates are unaffordable if they exceed 2.5 percent of median household income. According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 11 and 21 percent of households will spend more than 4 percent of household income on drinking water alone by 2019. Further, as noted by BPC, if current trends continue, by 2022, an estimated one-third of American households may find water unaffordable.

One of the issues associated with affordability and to a greater extent with compliance is the sheer number of water systems. As noted by BPC, “It is difficult to look at the fragmented delivery of water services in the U.S.—through more than 150,000 public water systems, nearly 15,000 POTWs, and 7,450 stormwater systems—as economically efficient. While the cost savings of regionalization strategies may be difficult to quantify, it is undeniable that building partnerships and collaboration among local systems can help to improve the management of those systems, lead to better service, and ultimately reduce costs.”

Importantly, WRDA strengthens the ability of states to require the consolidation of small, noncompliant, water systems as was recommended by BPC’s council. Consolidating water systems creates economies of scale allowing systems to disperse costs over a large population and is a critical part of addressing both compliance and affordability concerns.

Asset Inventories

One of the key recommendations of the executive council is for all levels of government to conduct asset inventories, which include an assessment on the asset’s condition, as well as how much it will cost to repair or replace the asset. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires states to develop capacity development strategies through which they will increase the ability of local governments to manage and maintain their systems. WRDA requires states to describe how they encourage the development of local asset management plans as part of their capacity development strategies.

BPC’s council would have gone a step further in requiring applicants for federal funding, including the State Revolving Loan programs and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) to adopt asset management plans. However, WRDA’s provision is a positive development in efforts to assess the state of the nation’s infrastructure.

SRF Reforms

State revolving loan funds (SRF) are the primary mechanism by which the federal government provides resources to state and local governments to address their water and wastewater needs. However, one of the common criticisms of the program is the overly burdensome paperwork requirements. Therefore, BPC has recommended EPA work with states to evaluate their SRF process and revise requirements that may make the application process needlessly time consuming and costly. Section 2015 of WRDA directs the EPA to collect information from the states on the administration of their SRFs in an effort to streamline the process for assistance and report on best practices.

Water Innovation

Finally, the council has also spoken to the importance of water innovation and technology development. Increasing the adoption of innovative technologies and processes will be fundamental to fixing our nation’s water infrastructure. Consistent with the council’s recommendations to create an Advanced Research Project Agency-Water (ARPA-W), WRDA provides $20 million for research grants over two years.

Recognizing the sheer number of water systems and the difficulty with sharing information among them, the council also recommended the creation of a standardized and unified list of technologies that have been publicly evaluated to promote the widespread adoption of innovative technologies. WRDA requires the EPA to conduct a review of existing and potential technologies and to share them with water systems. Additionally, the administration must share innovative technologies with organizations that provide technical assistance to wastewater systems.

The council made several additional recommendations that are reflected in WRDA including calling for the codification of WaterSense and the reauthorization of both the Drinking Water SRF and WIFIA.

The nation’s infrastructure demands are varied and extensive; they cross sectors and impact every single American. WRDA is proof-positive that the two parties can come together to address public policy needs. Congress and the nation would benefit from consideration of a comprehensive infrastructure bill in the 116th Congress.