SDWA – good news, bad news
A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spending program presents a “good news, bad news” scenario for local governments.
The good news is that, despite its concern about the federal deficit, Congress is about to authorize the State Revolving Fund (SRF), a new mega-spending program that will flood cities and towns with as much as $7.6 billion in low-interest loans for modernization and construction of drinking water treatment facilities.
The SRF is included as an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which has already passed both the House and the Senate and is now in a conference committee. A compromise bill will likely pass Congress this session, and President Clinton is expected to sign it.
So what is the bad news? Well, a cynic would would say that Congress is unlikely to appropriate all the $7.6 billion that will be authorized. Indeed, the House has appropriated $450 billion for fiscal 1997, while the Senate subcommittee approved $550 billion – what the Clinton administration requested.
But the SDWA amendments now in conference authorized $1 billion.
Moreover, municipal and county water systems will need much more than $7.5 billion in loans between now and the year 2003. “This SRF is nowhere near the financial solution that is needed,” says Al Warburton, director of legislative affairs for the American Water Works Association.
At the same time, EPA has done an internal survey of national drinking water infrastructure needs, which it is refusing to release. That survey, according to Vanessa Leiby, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administration, is buried in the White House Office of Management and Budget, where numbers crunchers, are attempting to knock down EPA estimates on the assumption that a figure in the $100 billion to $150 billion range – EPA’s preliminary figure, according to Leiby – would spur even bigger budget-busting appropriations.
Phil Metzger, chief policy counsel in the EPA’s office Of water, implies that the dollar range is not out of line if it is applied to all water infrastructure needs, including those related to expansion of systems. But, he admits, the estimate for investment needed simply to comply with EPA mandates stemming from the SDWA is “double-digit” billions.
That estimate has much to do with three upcoming final rules on disinfectants and disinfectant by-products, radon and enhanced surface water treatment. Tampa, Fla., for example, will have to improve treatment facilities to come into compliance with anticipated standards for total organic carbon, which are expected to be established within five years as part of the disinfectants/disinfectant by-products rule.
Despite the apparent insufficiency of the SRF, however, David Tippin, director of the Tampa water department and president of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, says he is “real enthused” about the SDWA amendments, particularly a provision that would allow cities and counties to decide which of the 83 chemical and microbial water contaminants, for which EPA has set maximum contaminant levels (MLCs), they will monitor. And smaller systems likely will have even more flexibility. Currently, water systems have to monitor for all 83, even if a particular one has never appeared in the local drinking water.
The final bill also will probably ditch the requirement, long reviled by urban and rural water providers, that EPA establish MCLS for 25 new contaminants every three years, making it easier for the agency to balance risks and consider costs and benefits to water systems and users.