GOP irked as $14 billion for water systems became $40 billion

New legislation would make it easier for states to get money for clean water projects, but drove the cost of the program much higher

Peter DeFazio, Sam Graves are posing for a picture
Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., left, and ranking member Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 29, 2020 at 6:00am

When House Democrats released a massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill covering everything from schools to broadband to wastewater on June 22, Republicans were dismayed — and not just because they’d had little input on the package.

Instead, they say, the 2,309-page measure ignores previous agreements between Republicans and Democrats on items that both sides had lauded just months ago.

Key among those agreements: the October 2019 House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s bipartisan vote to advance a bill that would reauthorize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. That measure included $14 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund — the primary vehicle for the federal government to steer money to wastewater infrastructure.

[With transportation’s future unclear, some question spending]

And it included a provision that gave states additional flexibility to comply with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, allowing 10-year renewals for the program that issues permits defining what sort of contaminants wastewater agencies are permitted to release into waterways. The current permit period is five years, and language in the bill would give states the discretion to make that time period less than 10 years if necessary. 

But the Democrats’ proposal ignores both of those provisions, Republicans say. 

Instead, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund has ballooned to $40 billion. And the flexibility language is gone, leaving Republicans wondering what the point of October’s negotiations was.

“The Clean Water Act SRF reauthorization bill was unanimously approved by the committee in October, but the speaker’s agenda continues to hijack once-bipartisan deals, dropping and changing key provisions that were agreed to in good faith for hyperpartisan positions,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the ranking Republican on the committee. “This is another example of how the Democratic leadership is more focused on messaging instead of actually legislating, and why this process can’t be taken seriously.”

A spokewoman for Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., said the increase in funding “is so we can better address the annual wastewater infrastructure need, and are trying to recover from a global pandemic through investment in our nation’s infrastructure.” 

The committee’s approval of the SRF reauthorization on Oct. 29 was a moment of comity in an increasingly partisan House.

Long expired

The last time the bill had been authorized was 1987, and the authorization expired in 1994. For 26 years, the program was funded solely through appropriations: $43 billion since 1987.

Democrats and Republicans announcing the agreement touted the need to invest in water infrastructure, issuing a joint statement urging the bill’s speedy passage in the House. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, meanwhile, approved its own bill reauthorizing the SRF on May 6. Neither bill has received a floor vote yet.

Stakeholders who fought for the permitting extension say they hope they’ll get another chance to add the language, and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., has submitted an amendment to the House Rules Committee that would restore the language. The committee will decide whether to accept that amendment on Monday.

In a statement, the National Association of Counties said it backs the extension of the general permit terms from five to 10 years. 

“We appreciate flexibility in both federal funding and policies so that they may be tailored to best meet the needs of our local communities,” the association said in a statement. “We believe in common sense reforms to federal permitting processes while continuing to ensure good environmental stewardship.”

Spending increases cheered

Kristina Surfus, managing director of government affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, lauded the higher level of investment for wastewater infrastructure, saying the $40 billion “recognizes the scale of water investments needed around the country.”

“The federal share of clean water infrastructure investment is below 5 percent nationwide, and these investments would go a long way to helping local communities provide clean water,” she said.

Adam Link, the executive director of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, said his organization is “absolutely supportive of” the funding increase to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. 

His state has a $7 billion backlog in wastewater projects. “An increase of this size would be really helpful in getting some of these projects done,” he said.

He said he is hopeful the permit extension will be included in future water legislation.

“We’re sort of reaching the point where … it doesn’t make sense to have a five-year limit anymore,” he said, “because agencies plan much further out.”

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