President Therese Murray and her Senate colleagues have joined a growing number of legislators proposing ways for the Commonwealth to solve the increasingly urgent and costly challenges posed by its aging water systems.
Murray and co-sponsors James Eldridge and Bruce Tarr last week introduced a Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Reform bill that draws heavily from the recommendations of the legislature’s Water Infrastructure Finance Commission (WIFC). That group last year identified a $21.4 billion shortfall in available funding compared to what is needed over the next 20 years to bring drinking water and wastewater systems to a state of adequate repair. It also outlined a host of possible solutions for closing the gap.
Senate Bill 1880 (summary, full text) frames its proposal under three initiatives: financing, reform, and system performance.
One of the key financing measures is to expand the capacity of the Water Pollution Abatement Trust (WPAT), adding $50 million per year to the amount it can lend for water projects, and allowing it to reduce interest rates on loans to cities and towns that meet certain criteria. These include demonstrating innovation in water systems management, establishing a water enterprise fund, and committing to full-cost pricing for water services. The bill also proposes a WPAT principal forgiveness program for qualifying projects.
Other financial assistance would come from technical assistance grants to help communities develop asset management plans and identify green infrastructure opportunities, and matching grants for cities and towns that wish to join the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority for wholesale water and sewer services.
“This proposed legislation will address our water and wastewater infrastructure challenges and assure that the Commonwealth’s future will not be limited by our access to clean drinking water,” Murray said. “The state of our water infrastructure is strongly tied to our economy, and a commitment to improving our water is a commitment to improving our economic strength. This proposal recognizes that commitment. It will allow us to smartly address our challenges, increase our investments, and ensure that our economic growth will not be slowed by the state of our water system.”
Eldridge, who co-chaired the WIFC, added, “Many communities in the Commonwealth are facing serious challenges posed by the cost of upgrades, upkeep and improvements of aging water and sewer systems. I believe the legislation we are presenting will make significant steps toward satisfying many of the goals and recommendations of the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission and make important improvements in the state and local financing for water infrastructure projects, make necessary reforms to maintaining and managing water systems, and encourage better system controls.”
Murray said that she hopes a public hearing for the Senate bill will be scheduled soon by the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, and that the full Senate could vote on the bill by late this year or early 2014.
The Senate bill came just one week after the same joint committee heard testimony on 30 bills covering a wide array of regulatory, infrastructure and financing issues that affect the provision of wastewater, stormwater and drinking water services. Coalition members Alan Cathcart, Water and Sewer Division Superintendent for Concord, and Eric Johnson, DPW Director of Planning and Design in Framingham, testified at that hearing on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition for Water Resources Stewardship.
Among the legislation they supported was House Bill 690, filed by Eldridge and Rep. Carolyn Dykema, which would create a water infrastructure bond funded at $200 million per year for 10 years.
The week before, Coalition president Philip Guerin, Director of Environmental Systems for Worcester, testified before the joint committee regarding the governor’s environmental bond bill, which includes an additional $57 million for the Water Pollution Abatement Trust.
Guerin also asked the committee to consider reinstating the $25 million water utilities grant program that was approved by the legislature in 2008 but never authorized; to increase funds for cities and towns to use to comply with the new Sustainable Water Management Initiative (SWMI); and to grant MassDEP more funds to improve its scientific research, on which it bases water quality standards and regulations.
Failure to adequately fund infrastructure projects not only threatens the delivery of water services, Guerin said, but also will force municipalities to further raise water rates paid by residents, which in some cities have gone up by 10% to 20% a year over the last decade.
Contact your state legislative representatives to ask their support of these measures, which will improve cities and towns’ ability to invest in improving their water resources infrastructure.