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3/13/2001 WIN announces report on Water Infrastructure Challenges: Water Infrastructure Now

 

Controversy Competes With Testimony At Water Hearings

Courtesy of eenews (3/28/01)

Move over California, the nation's next crisis is here: water. In so many words, that was the theme that developed at a pair of House subcommittee hearings Wednesday aimed at uncovering the need for comprehensive drinking water and wastewater infrastructure funding and legislation. By day's end, in-depth testimony questioning the financial viability of a total overhaul of the nation's water systems had been matched by environmentally minded lawmakers sounding off over the most recent Bush administration move on the arsenic standard controversy.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Whitman appeared at her second hearing on the subject of water infrastructure in as many days. But the former New Jersey governor's testimony on the subject at hand was delayed while lawmakers pounced on her decision earlier this month to delay the Clinton administration rule changing the allowable level of arsenic in the nation's drinking water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb. Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), in particular, made his feelings known during opening statements in the House Energy and Resources Committee hearing. Waxman, mimicking the Academy Awards ceremony, gave Whitman a "Golden Jackpot" trophy filled with chocolate for her decision to hold off on implementing the arsenic standards until further studies could be done.

Whitman said she agreed with Waxman that a standard needs to be set, only to say that other factors such as economics must be considered before the rule goes into effect. Maintaining her previous statements that a standard would be met before the 2006 deadline mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, Whitman added that she had not been directly lobbied on the issue by timber or mining industry officials. She also said White House officials kept their distance on the subject. Waxman, meanwhile, responded by saying water systems will continue to be polluted and the public health remains at risk while the EPA looks into the matter.

Later, after Whitman had finished giving her testimony, she said she was dismayed that the bigger picture of infrastructure issues was overlooked in favor of the arsenic rule. "If there are those who want to score partisan points, that is unfortunate," she said.

Whitman said EPA will address a number of key infrastructure issues is in its upcoming "gap analysis," a historical assessment expected this summer that will reveal previous capital investments on drinking water and wastewater and also addresses operations, maintenance and the costs of infrastructure improvements that could be passed on to consumers. In her testimony, Whitman pointed to all of those issues as key components for further evaluation. Also included in her list was emerging environmental and public health demands, notably arsenic.

Earlier in the day, committee heavyweights came out for the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing on the same subject. Full Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), former Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), and subcommittee ranking member Rep. Robert Borski (D-Pa.) all made it clear that something needed to be done on water issues soon. Young emphatically said that water infrastructure is both "badly needed" and a "major crisis facing this country," suggesting that one solution would be to organize a federal agency to head up the issue while ensuring that there be no "waste in bureaucracy" and "waste on delays."

Many of Young's suggestions, also made by other lawmakers, are also seen in a February report compiled by the Water Infrastructure Network (WIN). According to the report, the nation is facing a $23 billion annual gap over the next 20 years that should be financed partially by federal funds. But Wednesday's morning hearing also gave a glimpse into some new criticisms to the WIN report. According to the Congressional Budget Office, which is conducting an ongoing review of the WIN report as requested by both the Transportation and Infrastructure and Energy and Commerce subcommittees, there are a number of inconsistencies that cause concern.

Perry Beider, a CBO principal analyst, said the WIN estimates are uncertain and possibly overblown. He said the "lion's share" of the proposed funds are aimed at investments on rehabilitating or replacing water and sewer pipes but there is no national inventory of pipe ages and conditions to base those investment needs. He said WIN analysts are relying on rough national assumptions that add significantly to the uncertainty seen in a 20-year cost projection. Beider also said that while the WIN report says needs have been underestimated, CBO has found factors suggesting the estimates may be too large.

On the potential impact on water consumers, Beider said that "proposals intended to address the equity problem of keeping rates affordable may adversely affect efficiency by raising total national costs." He said that considering the differences in expenses from one water system to the next based on each's operation and investment plans, federal funds should be provided in a way that gives system operators and water users the appropriate incentives to keep costs and usage down.

Like the EPA, Beider said the CBO is also looking into the affordability issues associated with infrastructure needs and will provide additional information later this year. In a related matter, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has asked the General Accounting Office to do its own outside review of the WIN report, though no indication was given at a Tuesday hearing if GAO was finished.

Lee Garrigan, a WIN spokeswoman, said her organization has been working with CBO officials on the analysis and welcomes the review. Regarding the CBO criticisms, she said infrastructure debate is a first for the nation and "everybody involved is feeling their waythrough." While there is no complete survey to determine the conditions and extent of the nation's underground water and wastewater pipes, Garrigan said it is clear from anecdotes on daily maintenance from across the country that there is a need to fund a comprehensive overhaul.

"You always have differences in numbers," she said. "This is Washington."

-- Darren Samuelsohn

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