More Ebb Than Flow: Funding isn't keeping pace with increasing demands for safe drinking water and wastewater removal.

Author:Farquhar, Doug
 
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At one time, state legislatures were not that involved in water infrastructure. The federal government set the standards and provided money; local water utilities followed the standards using the federal funds and revenue from their ratepayers. Legislatures would authorize their state agencies to follow federal laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act and relied on local utilities to ensure that drinking water was safe and that wastewater was disposed of properly.

Many of these laws were enacted in the 1970s, when the demands for safe drinking water and wastewater removal were lighter. But those demands have increased significantly since then, and the federal funds currently appropriated for water infrastructure are no longer enough to cover the costs.

Federal funding comes primarily through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. Both programs are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, which awards grants to states for each program based on their needs. The states provide a 20% match, and the funds work like infrastructure banks by providing low-interest loans to eligible recipients. States are responsible for the operation of their programs and may set loan terms and target the resources to fit their specific needs.

Widespread Water Woes

The infrastructure problems resulting from a lack of funding have been felt across the country. Although the legislatures weren't directly responsible for them, recent crises quickly have become legislative problems.

Drinking water emergencies, during which a utility must shut off water to customers because of an environmental health hazard, have occurred in Charleston, W.V., Jackson, Miss., and Toledo, Ohio. Small towns such as Alamosa, Colo., and Worden, Mont., have had to ship in water supplies due to contamination.

The tragedy in Flint, Mich., is the best-known example. Flint's change in April 2014 from water treated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to water from the Flint River, exposed residents to elevated levels of lead and possibly caused an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease, which killed 12 people.

"In the case of Flint we messed up," says Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R). "There was a problem and the Legislature did not address it until it was too late."

When it did respond, the Legislature created a joint committee through the Flint Water Public Health Emergency Act of 2016. The committee...

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