The Ebb and Flow of the New US Water Bill

The passing of a new drinking water funding bill by the US House of Representatives could mean big changes. Liam Stoker takes a closer look at just what the $4.8bn investment in loans is being earmarked for.

The Assistance, Quality & Affordability (AQUA) Act, recently passed by the US House of Representatives, has authorised an investment of $4.8bn over three years in order to build upon and improve existing water facilities within the country. Broken down, the funding promises to affect a number of key areas and provide cleaner and safer water.

Introduced in May 2010 and passed by the US House of Representatives on 30 July, the bill now has to be passed by the senate before being signed by President Obama and introduced at a federal level. Upon its introduction, a number of programs and projects will be launched and supported, designed to benefit a wide range of water services and utilities.

Drinking water state revolving funds

Arguably the most significant implication of the AQUA Act is the provision of funds to provide low-interest loans to communities, and the authorisation of $100m in grants over five years to assist small public water systems to comply with drinking water regulations.

The intention of the fund is to provide these low interest loans, often at a rate of circa 1.5%, as a source of funding, acting as a significant financial incentive for public and private water utilities to plan water infrastructure improvements, such as treatment or desalination plants, distribution mains and storage facilities.

The revolving fund itself relies on the repayment of the loans, which are in turn used to fund additional projects. Communities with demonstrable financial hardship can also apply for a reduction in interest rates to as low as 0%, while financial hardship grants are also available in extreme circumstances.

The Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program

A pivotal area of the investment's allocation lies within the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP).

"The bill now has to be passed by the senate before being signed by President Obama."

Scientists have alleged that certain chemicals, including particular fertilisers and pesticides, are responsible for disrupting the endocrine system of humans. These chemicals have been found to contaminate the water supply and, as such, the EDSP was inducted by EPA in 1996.

The aim of the program is to screen pesticide chemicals and environmental contaminants for their potential to affect the endocrine system of humans and animals, acting to prevent potentially harmful contamination, rather than to cure the results.

As a result of the act, $500m will be provided annually over five years in order to support the program, with the aim of enhancing the current program to prioritise Endocrine Disrupting Compounds (EDCs) and lay out a criteria that should be used to choose for which chemicals to test and screen, allowing for continual updates to test protocols and the publication of data in a public database.

Redefining "lead free"

Also included, and in addition to the increase of federal assistance for the drinking water state revolving fund, is a redefinition of the term "lead free" in order to amend recommendations made in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

"As a result of the act, $500m will be provided annually over five years in order to support the program."

SDWA previously defined "lead free" as a maximum lead content of 8% for plumbing products carrying water for human consumption, whilst solder and fluxes were to have a maximum content of 0.2%.

Policy analyst for Consumers Union Shannon Baker-Branstetter approved the plan, citing the persistence of lead in drinking water as a "significant threat to human health," before adding that section 15 of the AQUA bill "provides a common sense and essential information on lead exposure to protect families throughout the US."

New legislation, based on California's Health and Safety Code Section 116875, would extend more stringent requirements to a federal level, demanding that any pipe, fitting or fixture intended to convey or dispense drinking water or water used for cooking must meet a weighted average lead content of less than, or equal to, 0.25%, with the aim of significantly reducing the amount of residual lead found in water designated for human consumption.

Corrosion control

Another section of the bill has been earning considerable support from businesses within the corrosion control industry in its bid to provide new trade opportunities.

Under the act, water districts will now be encouraged to combat infrastructure corrosion and anticipate future replacement needs, whilst improving the prioritisation of specific water projects that would improve efficiency, sustainability and long term viability of the water network.

The act itself would give greater weight to funding applications that include plans to prevent corrosion, with Congresswoman Betty Sutton championing the corrosion control amendment.

"This forward-thinking, cost-amendment will help us stave off the high costs of corrosion down the road by addressing it at the beginning of a project extending the life of critical infrastructure, reducing maintenance costs, increasing public safety and saving tax payer money," said Sutton.

Extending the reach

"The act would give greater weight to funding applications that include plans to prevent corrosion."

These improvements are not just limited to the mainland US, with the provision of increasing the state revolving funds available to Guam, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands also an integral inclusion of the bill.

This particular amendment would increase the federal government's contributions from 0.33% of available funds to 1%, an increase championed by Virgin Islands Congresswoman Donna Christensen.

In tripling the funds available to these territories, significant improvements can be made to Guam's infrastructure and improve the quality of the island's drinking water.