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Despite a historic investment in water, states say they need the money diverted in earmarks during last year’s budget negotiations to provide clean water.
Although Congress approved spending $55 billion to improve the nation’s water supply as part of the $1.7 trillion infrastructure package two years ago, water districts, like the Union Sanitary District in San Francisco’s Bay Area, still don’t have enough money to upgrade a wastewater treatment facility built in the 1950s. Officials say that’s because some money was diverted from clean water projects to congressional earmarks for special water projects in members' home districts.
According to state water associations, the money that Congress raided for earmarks was supposed to go to states through two programs—the Clean Water and the Drinking Water revolving funds.
Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, acknowledged the impact of Congress’ decision to take the funding for earmarks out of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which states use to give local governments low-interest loans to fund projects like improving wastewater treatment.
In a March 30 memo, Fox wrote that states will get about $863 million less this year because the annual amount was “reduced by the funds directed by Congress towards” earmarks.
A similar amount was also taken out of the revolving fund for drinking water. States say they need that nearly $1.5 billion to provide clean water and to prevent water pollution.
Some earmarks will help local governments provide clean water. Local governments in Texas, for example, received millions in earmarks for water projects, according to the list of earmarks examined by Route Fifty. The city of Temple, for instance, will receive $5 million, at the request of Republican Rep. John Carter, for a sanitary overflow reduction project. Harris County will receive $12 million for stormwater overflow basins requested by Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw,
But the funding for those projects will not be enough to offset the overall hit on the programs for clean drinking water and for water pollution prevention, according to an analysis by the Council of Infrastructure Financing Authorities. Texas, for example, will get $5.3 million less to prevent both water pollution and for drinking water even after funding for earmarks like the ones going to Temple and Harris County are taken into account.
Sixteen other states—Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming—are also collecting less from both water funds, even when earmarks are taken into account. Another 10 states will be getting less from the drinking water fund, and another eight will be getting less funding for clean water projects.
Virginia appears to have been particularly affected. Local governments in the state will not be receiving any earmarks for clean or drinking water, according to the budget documents. And the state will be getting $10 million less in clean water funding because part of the money is going to pay for earmarks in other states.
This is happening at a time when “we are receiving record numbers of applications for funding from the Virginia Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund,” Karen Doran, the state Department of Environmental Quality’s clean water financing and assistance program manager, said in an email. Losing the money will mean “a reduced ability to fund clean water projects in Virginia.”
Although the money diverted for earmarks lowers the amount of money that states were expecting for clean water and drinking water, states are still getting more overall under the infrastructure act. States, for example, will be receiving $2.2 billion in supplemental funding for the Clean Water Revolving Fund in the act, on top of the $1.7 billion Congress has been spending on the program.
Associations representing the state agencies say they wanted even more—$4.95 billion, for instance, for the clean water program this year, or roughly a billion more than what they are getting. And losing money to earmarks made things worse. Advocacy groups including the National Association of Clean Water Agencies are in Washington, D.C., this week to lobby Congress.
A House Democratic aide said that Democrats tried to get more money for the funds during budget negotiations in December, but were unsuccessful. “The Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds are a huge priority for House Democrats,” the aide said.
But the prospects of getting more funding appear slim with House Republicans pushing to reduce federal spending. Thomas Sigmund, executive director of NEW Water, a wastewater utility in Green Bay, Wisconsin, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in March that he is “discouraged” that President Joe Biden did not ask for more water funding in his budget proposal.
“It’s not that we're not grateful for the additional money that came through the infrastructure bill through the additional appropriations,” added Nathan Gardner-Andrews, chief advocacy and policy officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. “But even with all of the extra money in the infrastructure bill, there's still a greater need on the ground for dollars. There are more and more projects out there that could be funded.”
In Union City, California, for example, the Union Sanitary District runs a 33-acre wastewater treatment facility for more than 356,000 people. It was built in the 1950s and 1960s, said Paul Eldredge, the district’s general manager. “It is old and in need of repair.”
Inflation, though, has driven up the cost of the project by around 40% to over $500 million, he said. The district is planning to pay for half of it by issuing municipal bonds, but also has been hoping to get a low-interest loan through the revolving fund to pay for the other half.
California, though, doesn’t have enough funds to approve all of the applications it has received from agencies across the state, according to lists of funded projects and applications for projects reviewed by Route Fifty.
“We've applied, gosh, twice now,” Eldredge said, “and we've been unsuccessful.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org