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Water upgrade bill storms through US Senate

Thursday, 6 May 2021

US water infrastructure could receive a significant boost with a new funding bill quickly passing through the upper legislature. With billions of dollars of grants and loans set to be released, America's drinking water network is heading for a significant upgrade.

Renewing American water infrastructure

Passing with an overwhelming majority, the bi-partisan Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act will see more than $35 billion in funding released to upgrade America’s drinking and wastewater systems.

Under the terms of the first major infrastructure bill to be passed in this Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will gain the authority to offer revolving loan funds and fund grants.

Upgrades could include a significant drive to remove lead piping and introduce grants to help boost Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) treatment, as well as several other drinking water sustainability grant programs.

"Upgrades could include a drive to remove lead piping and introduce grants to help treat PFAS."

Of the $35 billion total funding, more than 40 per cent will directly benefit small, disadvantaged, rural, and tribal communities through State Revolving Loan Funds or direct grant programmes.

“With investments to identify and prevent water loss, test water quality, increase resilience in infrastructure, and recruit the next generation of our water workforce, the priorities laid out in the bill speak to the bipartisan goal of ensuring neglected water systems are not merely tended to, but made stronger,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee on introducing the bill.

Stormwater Centers of Excellence

Reauthorizing numerous core federal water infrastructure measures, bill S. 914 will see $14.65 billion allocated to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) over the next five years, for example.

The EPA will get a further $1.4 billion for its Sewer Overflow & Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grant Programme over the next five years.

Other programmes being launched under the bill include the Wastewater Energy Efficiency Grant Pilot Programme, set to get $100 million, and the Clean Water Infrastructure Resiliency and Sustainability Grant Programme, which will get $125 million over the next five years.

"It's clear that the lack of investments in our water infrastructure has led to a public health crisis, and we have to do more to stop it."

In addition, the Water Infrastructure and Workforce Investment Grant Programme and the Stormwater Infrastructure Technology Programme are expected to get $25 million each over five years. The plan is to create five Stormwater Centers of Excellence, as well as a further $50 million for stormwater infrastructure planning, development and implementation grants.

Furthermore, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act would get $250 million over the next five years and require only one rating agency opinion letter instead of the two currently required. Meanwhile, the Alternative Source Water Pilot Programme is expected to receive $125 million over the same five-year period.

Investment in utility cybersecurity

Along with the measures for water infrastructure that have been reapproved several new programmes are also being launched under the bill, for instance a programme aimed at investing in and modernizing cybersecurity.

The Midsize and Large Drinking Water System Infrastructure Resilience and Sustainability programme has been allocated $50,000,000 a year from 2022 through 2026 to assist in the planning, design, construction, implementation, operation, or maintenance to increase resilience to cybersecurity threats.

"The proposed Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021 clearly represents a significant increase in federal funding for water infrastructure programmes beyond the historical norm,” said Erin Bonney Casey, research director at Bluefield Research.

Speaking to Aquatech Online, she added: “What is unique is that the proposed spending reflects greater focus on digital water than we’ve seen to date. In particular, cybersecurity represents a central focus that was likely catalysed by the recent water utility hacking incident in Oldsmar, Florida.

“The bill will provide funding for emerging drinking water technology solutions.”

“Investment in utility cybersecurity should drive a more holistic approach to better managing the wide range of interconnected hardware and software systems deployed across utility network operations.”

Bonney Casey added that the bill will provide funding for “emerging drinking water technology solutions” in a sector that traditional tilts towards “established systems and technologies”.

“The challenge however, is that the costs and risks for utility operators are dynamic in their own right, driving the need for more efficient and advanced responses,” she added.

Increasing funding = increased projects

Approval for the $35 billion bill followed the EPA announcing the availability of $2.7 billion for State Revolving Funds to assist with infrastructure projects.

This includes more than $1.1 billion in new federal grant funding to be used for loans that help drinking water systems remove lead service lines, for example.

The Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act still has to pass through the house of representatives. However, with broad bi-partisan support, its passage is seen as very likely, and the bill was inevitably welcomed by many.

“This bipartisan legislation would make key investments to fund improvements to our nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems,” said Kevin Dempsey, president and CEO of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI).

Additional funding for low-interest loans available from state revolving funds will make a difference for municipal water bodies.

“Anytime you get increased funding, we can increase projects,” said Richard Duncan, executive director of the Delaware Rural Water Association, which is looking at water main improvements in Wilmington and wastewater treatment upgrades in Selbyville as well as replacement of lead pipes.

Tech-based solutions are front and center

Art Umble, senior vice president, water – global wastewater at Stantec, said: "The infrastructure bill is heavily focused on addressing those aspects of public health that is influenced by the condition of water and wastewater infrastructure.

"To that end, significant funding will likely target the upgrading of aging infrastructure (e.g., replacing lead service lines in water distribution systems, reducing inflow/infiltration and eliminating SSOs/CSOs in sewer networks, etc.)."

Speaking to Aquatech Online, he said: "Funding for infrastructure to address adaptation and resiliency against the impacts of climate change will be a likely target. Additionally, funding for solutions for removing constituents of emerging concern from source waters for drinking is a probable focus.

"This includes CECs like PFAS/PFOA, but furthering the emphases on NDMA and numerous DBPs. For these latter public health concerns, technology-based solutions are front and center."

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