WASHINGTON – In a near unanimous vote, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday passed a bill that includes $1.4 billion in federal funding for Flint, Mich. as well as any other community facing a water crisis.
The committee’s 19 to 1 vote in favor of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016 (S. 2848) marks the first step forward for controversial water legislation that has been stalled for months in the Senate.
The WRDA is authorized by Congress every two years to provide funding to inland water and marine transportation systems, but included the Flint-related water infrastructure provisions after they were removed from the Senate energy bill earlier this month.
The WRDA was introduced Monday by Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman and ranking minority member of the committee.
The Flint provisions would provide a total of $1.4 billion over the next 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, with a priority given to municipalities without basic drinking water or wastewater services.
They also would authorize a separate grant program to finance the replacement of lead service lines, which would provide $60 million for each of fiscal years 2017 through 2021 for a total of $300 million over five years. A total of $100 million in grants would be provided over five years for a voluntary school and child care lead testing program.
The bill now moves to Senate leaders for consideration, but a vote has not been scheduled.
“I will be working hard to ensure this legislation is sent to the president’s desk this year,” said Inhofe, who reaches his term limit as committee chairman at the end of the session.
Boxer expressed optimism that the bipartisan bill could be enacted, though she admitted it “is not perfect.”
“The bill is the sweet spot and we can get it done,” said Boxer, who is slated to retire this year. “When we can work together it’s a joy.”
Both Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., who sponsored the Flint-related provisions along with Inhofe and Boxer, called for Senate leaders to schedule a vote on the WRDA soon after Thursday’s meeting, which was adjourned in less than 30 minutes.
“Today, thanks to support from Republicans and Democrats, we are another step closer to passing urgently-needed help for families in Flint and other communities across the country,” Stabenow said. “I urge Sen. [Mitch] McConnell to continue this spirit of bipartisanship by bringing this legislation to the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible.”
President Obama recently announced he plans to visit Flint next week for a firsthand look at its water infrastructure crisis, which has lasted for two years.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, placed a hold on the energy bill because of concerns the Flint-related provisions would prove too costly, suggesting instead Michigan tap into its $386 million in rainy day funds or its $575 million surplus from 2015 rather than seek federal funding. Lee’s office could not be reached for comment on the WRDA Thursday.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said during Thursday’s meeting he strongly supports the bill because of Baltimore’s many unusable water fountains due to lead-contaminated pipes.
The WRDA would make permanent the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation (WIFIA) Act, which was introduced as a pilot program in 2014 and leverages federal investments on a basis of up to 60 to 1.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said he was “delighted” to see WRDA move forward because of its WIFIA provision as well as the “substantial amount” of financing it would provide to water supply systems and water treatment. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, called it an “embarrassment” that some communities have diseases “at third world levels” due to aging water infrastructure.
The WRDA would also create a water infrastructure investment trust fund that would be funded by fees collected for a voluntary labeling system. The trust fund would be used for capitalization grants for Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs).
Cardin acknowledged the need for more realistic funding for SRFs.
“There is an issue of whether we can find a revenue offset and I certainly understand that,” Cardin said. “I look forward … as this bill moves forward to see if we can increase those limits … to a more realistic number reflecting the current needs under state revolving funds.”
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 this month the EPA estimated $384 billion in drinking water needs and $271 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, which would require increased federal funding.
WRDA would also authorize 25 Army Corps projects in 17 states.
Only two WRDA bills have been enacted since 2002, according to the Surety & Fidelity Association of America. The trade association requested a requirement in WRDA that any state water project receiving financing through WIFIA must require bonding to qualify.