Flint Aid Added to Water Bill Introduced in Senate

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WASHINGTON – After having been withdrawn from the energy bill in the Senate, controversial legislation to provide federal funds to Flint, Mich., and any other community facing a water crisis, has been included in a major water bill introduced in the chamber this week.

The bipartisan Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 (S. 2848) is authorized by Congress every two years to provide funding to inland water and marine transportation systems.

It was introduced on Monday by Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

It includes Flint-related provisions that would provide a total of $1.4 billion over five years -- $230 million in fiscal 2017 as well as $300 million for each of fiscal years 2018 through 2021 -- to help “small and disadvantaged communities” comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. A priority is to be given to underserved communities without basic drinking water or wastewater services, according to a summary of the bill.

The WRDA was referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, and is scheduled for a vote on Thursday.

The WRDA would authorize a separate grant program to help finance the replacement of lead service lines. That program would provide $60 million for each of fiscal years 2017 through 2021 for a total of $300 million over five years.

The legislation would provide $20 million in direct spending to carry out each grant program.

The bill would also make available a total of $100 million in grants -- $20 million a year for fiscal years 2017 through 2012 -- for a voluntary school and child care lead testing program.

In addition, $100 million in drinking water state revolving funds would be provided to states with “emergency drinking water situations.” However, as a condition of receiving the funds, a state must include a plan outlining how the federal funding will be used.

The bill would make the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation (WIFIA) Act permanent and would provide $70 million for credit subsidies to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to make secured loans for infrastructure investments.

Introduced as a pilot program in 2014, WIFIA leverages federal investments on a basis of up to 60 to 1.

The legislation would create a water infrastructure investment trust fund, to be funded by fees collected for a voluntary labeling system, to be used for capitalization grants for Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs).

“What happened in Flint has shown us how vulnerable some of our water systems are, and this bill is a perfect vehicle to upgrade our water infrastructure,” Boxer said.

The WRDA would also authorize 25 Army Corps projects in 17 states that Inhofe said will deepen ports, protect against floods and restore ecosystems.

 “WRDA will also address our nation’s aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure by supporting federal programs that encourage local and private investment,” Inhofe said.

The WRDA comes two months after Inhofe and Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. introduced similar legislation added as an amendment to the Energy Modernization Act (S. 2012). But controversy over the Flint-related provisions stalled the energy bill in the Senate. That legislation, co-sponsored by Boxer, would have provided $220 million of federal funds to Flint, which has faced a lead contamination crisis in its water supply since April 2014.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, placed a hold on the amendment in March because of concerns it would prove too costly, and instead suggested Michigan tap into its $386 million in rainy day funds or its $575 million surplus from 2015 rather than seek federal funding. Peters and Stabenow eventually agreed to remove their Flint package from the energy bill earlier this month.

“The people of Flint – many of whom are still using bottled water to drink, cook and bathe -- are in dire need of assistance and I look forward to helping move this legislation forward in the Senate,” Peters said Tuesday.

The WRDA has received support from U.S. Conference of Mayors CEO and executive director Tom Cochran, who said the act would provide the needed resources to both the public sector and private citizens.

“The U.S. Conference of Mayors applauds Senators Inhofe and Boxer’s bill … as a major step forward to address many of the issues of concern that have been raised by the mayors of this nation,” Cochran said.

Inhofe has previously said he supports the clean water and drinking water state revolving loan funds, which President Obama proposed cutting by $414 million and increasing by $197 million, respectively, in his proposed fiscal 2017 budget. He also said this month the EPA estimated $384 billion in drinking water needs and $271 billion in wastewater needs over the next two decades, which would require increased federal funding.

The SRF programs, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency but implemented by states, provide grants to states, which the states then match by at least 20%.

Inhofe said in a release on Tuesday that this year’s WRDA builds on the reforms in WRRDA 2014 and “provides needed investments in America’s infrastructure.”

Inhofe and Boxer said investments in water infrastructure will create jobs, grow the economy and increase federal tax revenues. Boxer is retiring at the end of the year, while Inhofe reaches his term limit as chairman of the committee this year.

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