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November 25, 2013
Capitol Empties For Thanksgiving Holiday
Congress is in recess for the Thanksgiving holiday: the House will return the week of December 2 and the Senate the week of December 9. The AMWA office will be closed November 28-29, and the next Monday Morning Briefing will be published December 9. Happy Thanksgiving to all!
Bipartisan House Bill Could Solve Fire Hydrant Issue
New legislation introduced in the House of Representatives last week would specifically exempt fire hydrants from new lead-free requirements scheduled to take effect in January. AMWA and other water sector organizations have expressed support for the bill, and backers hope to move it through Congress before the end of the year.
Sponsored by Reps. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), the “Community Fire Safety Act” (H.R. 3588) would simply add fire hydrants to an existing list of products (such as toilets, bidets and shower valves) that are statutorily exempt from the new lead-free standards. The bill would also request the National Drinking Water Advisory Council to take into account all potential sources of lead throughout water distribution systems when considering revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule, but this would not alter the hydrant exemption.
This legislative fix was made necessary by an October 22 EPA announcement subjecting newly installed fire hydrants to updated lead-free standards for pipes and plumbing fixtures that take effect on January 4. Water utilities warned this would strand communities with millions of dollars worth of unusable hydrant inventories after that date, while also preventing the replacement of broken hydrants until new compliant models could be procured.
Indications are that H.R. 3588 could pass the House in early December, which should leave sufficient time for the Senate to act on the bill and send it to President Obama before January 4.
WRDA Conferees Convene To Negotiate Final Bill, Decide On WIFIA
Members of a House-Senate conference committee tasked with negotiating a final “Water Resources Development Act” (WRDA) formally met for the first time last week and set an ambitious goal of producing a bill before Congress departs Washington for the December holidays.
Speaking to reporters before the meeting, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) said the panel will “work hard” to get a bill done before the House adjourns for the year – currently scheduled for December 13. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) reiterated this goal during her remarks opening the conference, saying she was “very optimistic” lawmakers will “come to an agreement and send this bill to the President’s desk.”
The respective House and Senate-approved versions of WRDA contain many similarities, which should ease the task of conference committee members reaching a compromise. One area of difference, however, is the Senate’s inclusion of a “Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act” (WIFIA) that would help communities access low-cost financing for large-scale water and wastewater infrastructure projects. AMWA supports the WIFIA proposal but is also asking conferees to make several important fixes, such as removing a 49 percent cap on the portion of project costs that may be financed by a WIFIA loan, as well as a provision that would bar the use of tax-exempt debt to cover any remaining project costs.
In what could be a positive sign, Senator Boxer specifically highlighted WIFIA during her opening statement, discussing how it is modeled after the successful TIFIA program for major transportation projects. She did not reference the 49 percent cap/tax-exempt debt issue, but members of her staff recently told AMWA they are still working toward a fix.
AMWA and other WIFIA supporters are reaching out to all members of the conference committee to build additional support for WIFIA and address the remaining financing issue. AMWA utilities are strongly encouraged to weigh in with their own members of Congress on these topics in the coming days and may wish to use the two-page summary of the issue prepared by AMWA, AWWA and WEF as a guide.
Filibuster Reform Paves Way For Kopocis’ Confirmation To Head Office Of Water
Last week, the Senate voted to change its rules and allow certain presidential nominees (excluding the Supreme Court) to advance by a simple majority vote. Termed “the nuclear option,” this significant change to Senate filibuster rules was approved by Senate Democrats frustrated with the ongoing blocking of nominees by Republicans for what they perceived as purely political reasons.
In a press conference following the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) specifically cited the case of Ken Kopocis, President Obama’s nominee to head EPA’s Office of Water, as an example of why filibuster reform was necessary. Kopocis’ nomination has been blocked for almost two-and-a-half years over policy differences rather than any issues with his qualifications for the position. The new rules clear the way for the Senate to vote on the Kopocis nomination. If confirmed, he would take the helm of the Office of Water from Acting Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner, who has served in the position since 2010. Votes on the nominations of Kopocis and other previously blocked federal nominees have not been set, but could take place soon after the Senate returns from its Thanksgiving recess.
EPA Initiates Workgroup On Integrating Climate Readiness Into Utility Credit Assessments
EPA’s Climate Ready Water Utilities program, in conjunction with the sustainable investment advocacy organization CERES, recently launched a workgroup to discuss the potential for integrating the concept of climate readiness into credit rating assessments for drinking water and wastewater utilities. The workgroup comprises water utilities as well as individuals from credit ratings agencies and investor institutions. The workgroup is not a Federal Advisory Committee, as it is not charged with providing advice to EPA.
Although AMWA is not officially a workgroup member, AMWA staff attended the first workgroup meeting November 13-14 in Denver and will be working with utility participants to shape the process. EPA has indicated the workgroup itself would drive the process and the outcomes. As a result of the discussions and concerns raised during the first meeting, the workgroup’s scope could change. AMWA will continue to update members on this initiative as it develops.
Report Recommends Better Climate Information For Improved Financial Decision Making
A report by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) Policy Program, Climate Information Needs for Financial Decision Making, recommends a simplified framework for the scientific community to use for communicating levels of certainty about climate and weather risks to the financial community.
Noting that a vast amount of information about climate risks relevant to financial analysis already exists “and could be used if characterized more clearly and compellingly,” the report recommends that scientists use three levels of certainty for communicating with user communities about future climate impacts: possible, probable and effectively certain. The report identifies how weather events exacerbate risks to financial investments in critical infrastructure and key resources. It recommends that scientists make improvements in climate projections in order to provide information at relevant scales for financial decision making. Follow-on activities by AMS to put its recommendations into practice are also specified in the report.
NDWAC Seeks Nominees To Fill Open Seats
EPA published a Federal Register notice on November 15 seeking nominations of qualified individuals to be considered for appointment to the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC). Established under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), NDWAC serves as a vehicle to “provide practical and independent advice, consultation and recommendations to the EPA Administrator on the activities, functions, policies, and regulations required by the SDWA.” There are five pending NDWAC vacancies for three-year terms extending through December 15, 2016. Nominees for the upcoming vacancies are due to EPA by December 20.
The Federal Register notice, as well as additional information on NDWAC functions and processes, are accessible through EPA’s NDWAC webpage.
Rep. Blumenauer Offers New Wastewater Trust Fund Bill
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) last week introduced the latest version of his long-discussed legislation to establish a trust fund to direct additional moneys into the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF).
Unlike previous versions of the measure, the “Water Infrastructure Investment Act” (H.R. 3582) would not be funded through tax increases. Instead, a new voluntary program would allow consumer product manufacturers to place a small label on their products explaining that the company is “contributing to America’s clean water.” For each unit that displayed such a label, companies would contribute 3 cents to the trust fund.
Eighty-five percent of money deposited into the trust fund would be used to support the Clean Water SRF. The remaining 15 percent would be used by the Treasury Department to “establish an innovative financing program” for wastewater infrastructure projects based on the Department of Transportation’s TIFIA program. Drinking water infrastructure projects would not be eligible for assistance through the bill.
H.R. 3582’s lack of new taxes has helped the bill earn more Republican support than some previous versions, but the legislation still appears to face a long road to passage. AMWA was not involved with drafting the bill, as the association has focused on developing a more comprehensive WIFIA program targeting large-scale drinking water and wastewater projects.
Supreme Court Declines To Review MTBE Ruling Against Maryland Residents
The Supreme Court last week declined to review a lower court ruling that overturned nearly $1.5 billion in compensatory and putative damages against Exxon Mobil for contaminating groundwater in Maryland with the chemical MTBE, which is used in gasoline. In the 2011 case of Albright v. Exxon Mobil, 466 Maryland residents and businesses won the damages in county court, but a Maryland appeals court rejected all but a small portion of the damages related to contamination above Maryland’s 20 ppb MTBE maximum contaminant level.