EPA Stimulus Sewer/Water Infrastructure Funds Flow Slowly

By Stephen Barlas, Washington Editor | December 2009 Vol. 64 No. 12

Gelb didn't offer to take the blame for the small amount of construction projects which have gotten underway so far. She did admit that requirements in the ARRA, which pertain to water infrastructure projects, "did take a little bit of a learning curve." She meant for applicants, not the EPA. The two ARRA provisions she was alluding to are the Davis Bacon Act and the Buy American requirement. The first requires cities and towns to pay union wages on any sewer or water project; the second prohibits use of foreign steel components and manufactured goods, unless the EPA issues an exemption, which it has done for nearly 25 projects.

Another possible reason for the slow letting of stimulus water construction contracts was advanced by Michael Gritzuk, director, Pima County (Arizona) regional wastewater reclamation department. He said states were doing everything they can today to quickly get stimulus funds to agencies like his. But he added, "It is critical that these efforts be guided by the goals of job creation and shovel readiness rather than just pre existing priority criteria or single indicators such as affordability and median household income." Gritzuk was testifying on behalf of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). Susan Bruninga, director of public affairs for NACWA, explains the association did an informal survey of members a year prior to the stimulus bill being passed. That survey turned up $17 billion in shovel ready wastewater projects. Many of those apparently did not make it on to state "priority lists," which the states sent to the EPA with prospective ARRA projects enumerated. Moreover, some states were anxious to spread their ARRA wastewater and drinking water funds around the state to as many communities as possible. As a result, some larger cities, with the largest projects and biggest job creation potential, got slighted. Bruninga says that St. Louis and Kansas City got very little funding out of Missouri's clean water stimulus money, for example.

Green barrier

The EPA also had to face a third restriction of sorts, besides the Davis Bacon and Buy American provisions. There was the requirement that 20 percent of the $4 billion and $2 billion be devoted to "green" projects. Gelb told the House committee that so far only 14 states had met that requirement. "We fully expect the other states to meet it," she added.