Infrastructure

President's Budget Blueprint Reduces Overall Federal Support for Water Infrastructure

By Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy FellowIn March 2017, the Trump Administration released itssummary budget blueprintfor Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2018, which begins October 1, 2017.  The plan signals the administration’s overall intention to cut non-defense domestic programs in order to free up funds for increased military spending.  There is a long road to travel before any parts of the plan are enacted, and many members of Congress have already gone on record expressing reservations about specific elements of the proposal.  Nonetheless, the blueprint creates a starting point for agency budget plans that will be presented to Congress in the coming months.   

This blog discusses the administration’s proposed changes to how the federal government will support investments in water infrastructure.  The Trump Administration’s budget blueprint would eliminate the USDA Rural Development water and wastewater loan program, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), and the U.S. Department of Commerce – Economic Development Administration (EDA).   The plan would preserve funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) water and wastewater revolving loan funds, although the agency as a whole would face a 31 percent budget reduction, resulting in the elimination of 3,200 agency staff positions and a 45 percent reduction in categorical grant programs.  One of these categorical grant programs provides states with funding for the oversight of local drinking water systems.  It helps pay for the Ohio EPA to monitor local compliance with protocols for the control of lead and other contaminants. 

The budget proposal should be analyzed in the context of the nation’s critical need to modernize drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.  This issue is a high priority for Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) because of its links to economic development, land use planning, and the potential for financial strain on Ohio families and communities (see our recentWater Infrastructurereports).  According to EPA estimates, Ohio water utilities (typically local governments) will need to make capital investments of $26 billion in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure to meet identified needs over the next 20 years.   User charges have been rising steadily, faster than the rate of general consumer inflation. 

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                           Photo courtesy of Wikicommons

The federal government plays a major role in financing water infrastructure investments, although the approach has changed significantly over the decades.  With the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970s, Congress created a large grant program to assist local governments with the modernization of wastewater treatment plants and related infrastructure.  The federal government paid 75 percent of project costs in the initial program, which was changed to 55 percent in the 1980s.  This was one of largest federal infrastructure programs since the interstate highway program of the 1950s and 1960s. 

In the late 1980s, Congress phased out the wastewater grant program in favor of a revolving loan approach.  A revolving loan for drinking water infrastructure was added in the late 1990s.  Under the current policy, each year the U.S. EPA provides a capitalization grant to state revolving loan funds which lend directly to local governments at subsidized interest rates.  The state must provide a 20 percent match for the grant.  In FFY 2016, the Ohio EPA received a $75.2 million capitalization grant for its Water Pollution Control Loan Fund, and $23.1 million for the Drinking Water Assistance Fund.   Communities that want a market-rate loan with fewer administrative hurdles can approach the Ohio Water Development Authority, which runs a state-supported revolving loan fund.   

The result of this change in federal strategy is that local communities bear the largest responsibility for financing water infrastructure.  Communities that need a grant to complete their capital project must rely on other sources, which are extremely limited and competitive.  At the federal level, these sources include the USDA Rural Development – Water and Wastewater Loan program, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the Community Development Block Grant, and the Economic Development Administration.  The USDA and ARC programs are targeted at smaller, low income communities in rural counties that need them the most.  In FFY 2016, USDA Rural Development made 17 grants for a total of $14 million to Ohio communities, and an additional 16 loans for $44.6 million.  The ARC, a smaller agency, made 12 water infrastructure grants for a total of $2.7 million in Ohio.  The CDBG provides several million dollars in Ohio each year for water and infrastructure through its Critical Infrastructure Program.  (For more information on the challenges of water infrastructure in Ohio, seepanelist presentationsfrom GOPC’s Investing in Ohio’s Future 2017 Summit and our reportStrengthening Ohio’s Water Infrastructure). 

The Budget Blueprint asserts that the USDA and EDA programs are duplicative of the state revolving funds and other programs, and that the CDBG is “not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.” The ARC is part of a long list of small, independent agencies slated for elimination.  The administration’s claims deserve close scrutiny from Congress, however.  The underlying issue is whether the federal government has any responsibility to provide grants, and the importance of grants in sustaining investments by small communities.  For small towns, grant funding can provide the missing piece of capital that makes a project affordable.  In Ohio, state and federal agencies have worked together for decades and often find ways to share responsibility for financing projects in small communities.  An interagency Small Communities Environmental Infrastructure Working Group (SCEIG), meets regularly throughout the year to provide advice to local governments seeking financing, and coordinates technical assistance programs. 

The elimination of these three federal programs would make the Ohio Public Works Commission (OPWC) the only significant remaining source of grant funding for water infrastructure in the Buckeye state.  (The EPA revolving loan funds have a limited number of loans that allow partial principal forgiveness.)  Most OPWC projects are prioritized at the local district level, and must compete with transportation projects.  In the context of rising concerns in Ohio and nationally about the affordability of infrastructure, a “one size fits all” approach to financing may backfire. 

For further resources and reports, please visit GOPC’s Sewer and Water Infrastructure Resource Page

Southwest Ohio’s Pipeline H2O Launches Program for Upgrading Sewer and Water Infrastructure

By Nick Livingston, GOPC High School Intern Pipeline H2O, a water-based startup technology program located in Hamilton, Ohio, has just announced its first class of companies that are working on water infrastructure challenges. Pipeline H2O’s main objective is to acknowledge and advance the work of water technology companies improve water services and seek innovative strategies for reusing water, upgrading infrastructure, treating wastewater, and monitoring water quality. This timely news coincides with GOPC recently beginning the Implementation Phase of its Water Financing Project, providing recommendations on strengthening the long-term sustainability of water infrastructure in Ohio. 

At the end of the selection process, Pipeline H2O chose eight startup companies to begin the program, including two companies from Ohio: kW river Hydroelctric from Hamilton, and Searen from Cincinnati. Companies that have been selected to participate in the Pipeline H2O program exhibit through their work many of the strategies that GOPC recommends in its recent report, Strengthening Ohio’s Water Infrastructure: Financing and Policy. For instance, WEL Enterprise’s system that treats and reclaims wastewater on one platform is a strong example of developing new technologies in order to save energy costs, which is a strategy GOPC recommends in its report.  

GOPC‘s report also emphasizes the importance of asset management, which is the process of cost-effectively upgrading and maintaining assets. The companies selected for the Pipeline H20 program are efficient in maintaining resources and saving money while upgrading water quality, demonstrating sound asset management techniques.  For instance, the Aquatech startup Searen has created a Vacuum Airlift, which replaces legacy hardware and consolidates pieces of equipment. In addition, GOPC’s call for public-private partnership to make projects more flexible and timely can be seen through Pipeline H2O’s partnership with government agencies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the City of Hamilton, and the City of Cincinnati.

Go Here to access GOPC’s latest report Strengthening Ohio’s Water Infrastructure: Financing and Policy and Here for more on Pipeline H20’s inaugural class of water technology companies

Pipeline H20’s assessment was handled by a committee composed of water experts, including Greater Cincinnati Water Works, the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, City of Hamilton Water, Confluence, Butler County Groundwater Consortium, U.S. EPA, Hamilton Mill, Cintrifuse, Village Capital, and Queen City Angels.  New and innovative ideas concerning water development will be introduced throughout the region from the selected companies, and the Pipeline H2O program will be set in action from February 2017 through May 2017.

 

Mid-Sized Cities with Declining Populations Face Water Infrastructure Dilemma

By John Collier, GOPC Research & Conference Support Intern, and Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow The United States Government Accountability Office recently released a report on the water infrastructure dilemma occurring in the United States’ mid-sized and large cities with declining population.  GAO’s analysis was requested by Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY), to understand the unique challenges these cities face in repairing and replacing water and sewer infrastructure.   The GAO noted that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) surveys of water utilities estimate that over 20 years, $655 billion will have to be spent to maintain, replace, or upgrade the country’s water infrastructure.

GAO interviewed water and wastewater utility officials in 10 cities in the Midwest and Northeast, including Youngstown, Ohio, that experienced large population declines between 1980 and 2010.  Youngstown lost 42% of its population over this time frame.  GAO acknowledged that mid-sized to larger cities with declining populations are generally more economically distressed, and suffer from higher unemployment, higher poverty rates, and lower median incomes. These cities, whose peak population typically was in the 1950s and 1960s, suffer from decreased revenue and increased costs. The characteristics of these legacy cities put them in a unique financial bind.

Nearly all the cities in the report expressed concerns over their ability to control combined sewer overflows. Outdated infrastructure in these legacy cities needs updated, but their financial situation makes this difficult.  All the selected cities in the report have raised utility rates in an effort to raise more revenue, but this results in affordability problems for low-income households.  Low-income households in Youngstown now pay over 8% of their median income for their water and sewer bills on a combined basis, well above EPA guidelines for affordability of 3%.  Although Youngstown and other cities have established payment plans to make utility access affordable for lower-income households, it does not discount bills for low-income households, and the prospect of future rate increases will continue to make affordability difficult. 

One of the interesting findings from the report was that the utilities in the study are adopting asset management plans, but it is very difficult to downsize or “rightsize” their infrastructure despite large areas of vacant housing or vacant land.  Asset management refers to creating a comprehensive inventory of the utility assets and their condition, and integrating this data with maintenance and capital planning.  The utilities noted that downsizing was difficult because they still had to service a few houses in each block, or maintain lines through vacant areas in order to reach neighborhoods farther away.  This response illustrates how difficult it is to separate infrastructure planning from overall land use planning. 

Greater Ohio Policy Center considers the modernization of Ohio’s water infrastructure a critical issue. GOPC has conducted an assessment of the issues Ohio’s legacy cities face, and the need for additional mechanisms, such as green infrastructure as an alternative stormwater management tool.  We believe that asset management and regional consolidation are key outcomes that could be accelerated with additional state incentives.     

More information about water infrastructure and links to GOPC’s reports can be found Here.