Trump Talked Big on Infrastructure, But No Action Yet

Prior to taking office the Trump administration talked about making $1 trillion in new infrastructure investments. Since taking office, the administration hasn’t said much about infrastructure, but Senate Democrats have put forward their own plan. [UPDATE 3/2/2017—the White House is now convening discussions on infrastructure spending]. Instead, the Trump administration has begun an assault on our environment and the agencies we rely upon to keep pollution out of the nation’s waters (see this excellent piece by NRDC’s President, Rhea Suh).

Undercutting protections for water will only add to the nation’s water problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the nation needs nearly $660 billion to maintain existing health and environmental standards ($271 billion for sewage systems and stormwater and $384 billion for drinking water). In addition, the nation’s water infrastructure needs could increase by an additional $448 - $944 billion by 2050 because of climate change and the additional stress that the increasing number of droughts, floods, powerful storms, and sea level rise will put on these systems.

NRDC has some ideas for how we can start to fix some of the nation’s water infrastructure problems. These ideas would increase federal funding, incentivize states to put more of their own money into water infrastructure, make more money available for low income communities and environmentally innovative projects, and get our water systems prepared for the impacts of climate change. 

Triple federal appropriations for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRF) from roughly $2 billion to $6 billion

This should be an easy one since President Trump already committed to an identical level of support.

The nation needs a long-term commitment to water infrastructure funding. We need a strategy that not only ramps up federal investments in water infrastructure, but also leverages more support from states, cities and towns, and the private sector. The program already exists to make that happen, through the state revolving funds (SRFs).

The SRFs are the largest source of federal water infrastructure funding. Congress appropriates funding, which EPA disburses to the states according to a needs-based formula.  States determine which communities get assistance and how much assistance they’ll receive. Since their inception (Congress established the Clean Water SRF in 1988 and the Drinking Water SRF in 1996), the SRFs have provided $138.9 billion to local communities, almost all of which has been in the form of low-interest loans.

Unfortunately, most states don’t use these funds very creatively. Too often the financial support they provide through the SRFs is insufficient to keep pace with the routine repair and upkeep up our nation’s aging water systems, leaving very little for more innovative practices like green infrastructure, water efficiency and reuse, or climate resilient resiliency. Also, far too little funding is available to replace lead water lines that endanger the health of 18 million Americans. If new federal funding is forthcoming, it should be targeted toward these kinds of projects, which currently don’t get their fair share of the water infrastructure pie. NRDC recommends that we triple funding for the SRFs and dedicate the additional $4 billion in new federal funding to the following kinds of projects:

  • Removing lead service lines that are used by millions of Americans
  • Water efficiency, water reuse, and water recycling
  • Green infrastructure
  • Source water protection
  • Reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from wastewater and stormwater
  • Reducing the amount of water that’s wasted due to old, leaky water mains (Indiana recently found that 25% of the state’s water never makes it from the treatment plant to people homes)
  • Fixing deteriorating outdated drinking water infrastructure, especially in disadvantaged communities that cannot ensure that safe water is provided to their residents.
  • Ensuring that our water infrastructure is designed with the increased risk of droughts, floods, and other impacts of climate change.

Get the lead out of our drinking water

While communities across the country have been struggling with drinking water contamination issues for years, the Flint water crisis has become the epicenter of a national story about the need to get lead out of people’s drinking water.

Lead, a known neurotoxin with particularly devastating impacts for developing children, is not safe for consumption or exposure at any level. Despite that, many cities like Flint have used lead service lines as their main arteries to carry water from the water main to homes and businesses. The only way to fix this problem and prevent another future Flint is to replace  all lead service lines.

Cities like Lansing, MI and Madison, WI, have shown that it can be done. But economically distressed areas like Flint need assistance to do so. State and federal actions and resources are needed to avoid the kind of public health crisis now playing out in Flint. As part of any infrastructure package, Congress should:

  • Make lead pipe removal eligible for assistance from the Drinking Water SRF in the form of grants, or by forgiving low-interest loans issued by the Drinking Water SRF.
  • Require that lead pipes and fixtures be removed from public housing when it is undergoing renovation.
  • Require testing for lead in the drinking water of public buildings, particularly schools, hospitals and universities, as Illinois now requires.

Catalyze additional state investments in the SRFs and increase the amount of assistance states provide in the form of grants or loan forgiveness with those funds

Too many states take the money given to them by the federal government, make their minimum 20 percent match, and little else. Communities are left to their own devices to find the additional funding they need.

NRDC wants to see states to use their SRFs more creatively, by investing more of their own resources, by providing a assistance in the form of loan guarantees, and by distributing more funding as grants to low-income communities and environmentally innovative projects, like green infrastructure and water efficiency.

This could be accomplished by changing the cap that Congress places on the amount of assistance states can distribute as grants, known in SRF circles as “additional subsidization”. Currently, states can only provide subsidized assistance (e.g. grants) up to an amount that equals 30 percent of their annual federal SRF funding and they’re barred from providing more, even if they have the financial capacity to do so. 

NRDC recommends amending the SRF statutes to base the cap on a 10-year rolling average of how much states have invested above and beyond their minimum federal match requirements. This reform would incentivize states to contribute more funding to their SRFs and allow them distribute most of those dollars to hardship communities and communities that want to promote green infrastructure, water efficiency and reuse, and climate resiliency.

Twenty states could immediately benefit from such a change, including New York, Texas, Ohio, Indiana and Massachusetts. These twenty states have contributed, on average, nearly $70 million per year over the last ten years, on top of the minimum 20 percent SRF match required to receive new federal funding. Currently those states can, on average, only provide $11.2 million of grant assistance each year. Under our proposal, states would be able to distribute $69.3 million per year as grants or other forms of subsidized assistance for eligible projects.

Fully fund EPA’s Federal Credit Assistance Program as authorized under the Water Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act

Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act (WIFIA) in 2014, authorizing a new financing mechanism that EPA could deploy to provide support for larger water infrastructure projects (greater than $20 million) and projects that seek to utilize more innovative and sustainable water infrastructure solutions. This year, the program is authorized to provide up to $25 million in credit assistance that would ultimately result in $250 million in assistance to applicants through low interst loans and loan guarantees. WIFIA should be fully funded to its authorized limits of $35 million in FY2017, $45 million in FY2018, and $50 million in FY2019. WIFIA has potential, but NRDC submitted comments with American Rivers suggesting several improvements that should be made to USEPA’s implementation of WIFIA.

Make water systems more resilient

Water and sewage treatment plants are often built in low-lying areas, making them very vulnerable to floods, coastal storms, and sea level rise. And the problems of flooding are becoming worse because of climate change.  It’s imperative that EPA, and all federal agencies, comply with updated federal flood protection standards, assuming the executive order that established these standards is not revoked by President Trump

We already spend billions of dollars to repair and rebuild water facilities damaged in flood disasters. NRDC found that FEMA has spent $10.3 billion to repair and rebuild public utilities since 1998.

The updated  flood protection standards ensure the funding EPA provides for water infrastructure supports the construction of facilities that are safe for the long-term and less likely to be flooded and knocked off line by a flood or hurricane. EPAs proposed regulations for WIFIA would ensure all applicants conform to the flood protectin standards. EPA needs to make sure the standards also apply  to the billions it spends through the SRFs as well.

Conclusion

President Trump has talked big on infrastructure, but has yet to show the nation what he can deliver, beyond a desire to roll back environmental regulations. Republicans in Congress don’t seem eager to launch a major federal infrastructure initiative, but Senate Democrats and governors of all political persuasions are keenly interested.

We need a new conversation about water infrastructure in the United States—one that isn’t just about how much we’re going to spend, but also discusses what we need to spend it on.

About the Authors

Rob Moore

Senior Policy Analyst, Water program

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