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Climate-Proofing Water Systems Needs Billions, Advocates Say (3)

Feb. 25, 2021, 4:55 PM; Updated: Feb. 26, 2021, 1:30 PM

Municipal utilities and clean water organizations are calling on Congress to expand the EPA’s water infrastructure programs to help them climate change-proof drinking water and wastewater systems following last week’s deep freeze in Texas.

Before the storm, the EPA estimated that maintaining and improving the nation’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years will cost about $750 billion. Water infrastructure advocacy organizations say the deep freeze shows the importance of spending more federal money on preparing vulnerable water works for climate extremes.

“This is a good example of how the climate crisis is really a water issue,” said David Zielonka, spokesman for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. “The answer to this problem is not a regulatory one. The answer to this is more funding.”

The extreme freeze left 14.6 million Texans without running or potable water at the height of the storm Feb. 19. As of Thursday morning, more than 1 million remained under boil-water orders, about 19,000 still had no running water, and freeze-related problems were still being reported at water systems across 204 Texas counties, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokesman Gary Rasp said.

NACWA, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and other organizations say they want Congress to expand some EPA water infrastructure programs. For example, the EPA runs a water system risk assessment program, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which helps pay for local waste water system upgrades nationwide.

The EPA’s infrastructure funding can ensure that local water systems can adapt to extreme weather, but it’s not nearly enough to do the job, said Dan Hartnett, chief advocacy officer for AMWA.

The crisis in Texas and other extreme weather events in recent years such as drought, flooding and hurricanes, “all will support the EPA pushing forth with an agenda to make systems more resilient,” said Steve Dye, legislative affairs director for the Water Environment Federation.

Need Greater Than Funding

The EPA has allotted about $1.1 billion each year to states since 2017 as part of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and about $1.6 billion annually for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund over the same period.

The water risk assessment program requires community drinking water systems serving more than 3,300 people to assess their risk and emergency response plans and provides competitive grants to help water systems conduct those assessments. The program was created under a 2018 water infrastructure law.

But Congress has appropriated only about $7 million for a climate resiliency and adaptation competitive grant program created under 2018 the law for drinking water systems, Hartnett said. The EPA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Major drinking water systems such as those in Houston and Austin aren’t eligible for the grants, but AMWA is working with Congress to expand grant eligibility to all water systems, Hartnett said.

Grants are essential because ratepayers have long borne the cost of repairing and upgrading crumbling water infrastructure, or upgrades on the systems have been deferred, said Becky Hammer, senior attorney and deputy director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The poor state of our water infrastructure is a long-term problem that requires a federal solution,” Hammer said. “Building climate resilience will require a lot of money,” Hammer said.

Congress needs to dramatically increase federal funding for water infrastructure through the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, she said.

“The EPA should work with states to encourage them to prioritize funding for resilient green infrastructure projects, and prioritize technical support to states and utilities on setting up water affordability programs,” Hammer said.

Priority in Congress

Congressional Democrats, who are newly in control of the Senate, say they’re prioritizing water infrastructure in their climate resiliency plans—especially after last week’s storm.

A bill that would have infused the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund with $25 billion and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund with $40 billion passed the House in 2020 but stalled in the Senate.

The water crisis in Texas demonstrates water utilities’ vulnerability to climate change. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees wastewater infrastructure, is prioritizing investments in resiliency this term, according to a committee statement.

The first step in making water infrastructure more resilient is to reauthorize the EPA’s state revolving funds so that they’ll prioritize climate change resiliency upgrades to water infrastructure, according to a statement from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Committee chair Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) “is focused on building on the legislation passed in 2018 and 2020 to give EPA a larger role in hardening our existing water infrastructure to combat the impacts of climate change,” the statement said.

Funding, Not Regulation

Deficiencies in water system resiliency exposed because of last week’s storm reinforce the need for more resiliency funding. But they’re unlikely to push EPA to regulate water systems more heavily, said Mike Shapiro, a former deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

In Texas, water systems often may struggle to keep up with operating, maintenance and modernization needs, and last week’s storm may have pushed them to failure sooner than they expected, he said.

“If that’s the case, it reinforces the call for increased national investment in water infrastructure, but again, not necessarily for more federal drinking water regulation,” Shapiro said.

To address that without new regulation, the EPA could study state revolving fund programs “to see whether investment guidelines are priorities need to be tweaked to that investments to support resilience to cold weather extremes are given appropriate attention,” Shapiro said.

The agency also could consider whether similar guidelines for the EPA’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act credit program should be expanded, Shapiro said.

The act, passed in 2014, created a federal credit program administered by the EPA to allow water systems to borrow money for infrastructure upgrades, including projects eligible for the drinking water and clean water state revolving funds.

The program has financed $8.3 billion in projects serving 27 million people, the EPA says.

Wildfires Also a Threat

But some city water infrastructure systems need federal help to withstand wildfires and other natural disasters in addition to deep freezes, water utilities say.

In Fort Collins, Colo., the city’s watershed—on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service—was ravaged by catastrophic wildfire in 2012 and 2020. The fires left the city’s water intake and treatment plant vulnerable to floods, debris and water quality declines.

Delivering good-quality water in Fort Collins requires effective coordination with at least three federal agencies—the EPA, the Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers—each of which has to prioritize watershed restoration, said Theresa Connor, interim executive director for Fort Collins Utilities.

Water affordability for consumers is also needs to be addressed as part of federal assistance for infrastructure upgrades, she said.

“Reliable, resilient infrastructure that looks at not only climate but also disasters is really needed,” Connor said. “I really hope that the federal government sees themselves as a partner and not just a regulator—a partner in funding and technical assistance.”

(Adds Becky Hammer comment in twelfth paragraph and clarifies EPA programs in fifth paragraph of Feb. 25 story. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com

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