As West Virginia’s water infrastructure ages and deteriorates after a decade of inaction by state officials, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced a bill to Congress Wednesday that would provide resources for small water systems nationwide to improve facilities.
The Assuring Quality Water Infrastructure Act of 2019 is a bipartisan bill introduced with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland. The six page bill proposes amending the Safe Drinking Water Act to include a provision creating a grant program to provide funding to local governments for infrastructure improvements and asset management.
“A lot of our systems are very old, and those old systems, it affects the water quality,” Capito said. “With asset management, we’ve learned some of our systems don’t even know where the piping is because they’re so old — there aren’t records. Before we can do anything we need to know what a problem is, where a leak is.”
Capito said she was concerned about the rate of unaccounted water loss for water systems throughout the state. She cited the recent report on Page-Kincaid Public Service District, which experiences an unaccounted water loss of 65 percent — the seventh highest rate in the state of the 276 water systems that report their losses.
Through the proposed bill, the Environmental Protection Agency would dispense $5 million annually to small water systems (those with fewer than 10,000 customers) to invest in infrastructure improvements or asset management. For many systems, Capito said, this could be as simple as installing leak detection technology, which would help systems quell leaks earlier and would lead to less money being wasted treating water that never makes it to a faucet.
“That water is just gone, and it’s taking money with it,” Capito said. “If we could help systems save that money, it could be used for other, necessary things, like upgrading plants and other maintenance.”
Southern West Virginia is hit especially hard with aging water infrastructure — most systems were installed upwards of 50 years ago by coal companies that, when they vacated towns, left no records of where water lines were laid or how they were constructed.
The problem of dilapidated infrastructure is not a West Virginia-specific issue, though — it’s a national problem. The National Rural Water Association lists infrastructure upgrades and investments as one of its top priorities for water systems across the United States to ensure citizens have continued access to clean, quality drinking water.
Other states — Texas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, to name a few — have created water infrastructure task forces to combat the problem. Though all operate differently, most operate a fund at the state level for water infrastructure grants.
Nationwide, most funding for water infrastructure projects come in the form of loans, which can be burdensome — especially for small systems with limited customer bases — as interest payments mean less cash on hand for emergencies or repairs.
Despite numerous reports released in the last 10 years that outline the Mountain State’s mounting expenses and challenges regarding its aging water systems, almost no bills have been introduced by state legislators to address or attempt to correct the problem.
Last legislative session, Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, introduced a bill to create the Sewer and Water Infrastructure Replacement Fund. If passed, Senate Bill 500 would have diverted a percentage of excess revenue in the state, when there is excess revenue, to fund grants for PSDs and municipalities to replace aging water and sewage facilities.
But — despite having 30 of 34 senators signed on as sponsors — the bill didn’t pass.
It didn’t even make it to a committee. This is unsurprising given the number of bills that are voted on each session (up to 250) compared to the number of bills that are introduced annually (up to 2,000).
Based on the West Virginia Legislature’s website, SB 500 was the only bill introduced in at least the last 10 years specifically regarding water infrastructure. While the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council and the Water Development Authority manage the state’s revolving funds for drinking water and wastewater projects, money is limited — despite being matched by federal funds — and the model means most funds given are loans, not grants.
Capito said she could see state legislators work to make more money available through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and hopes that — if passed — her recently introduced bill could build on any progress made in improvements at the state level.
She also said she hopes that those in West Virginia view the issue of lost water due to dilapidated infrastructure through a wider lens. The Mountain State is flush with water, Capito said, while other states — California, New York and Alabama, to name a few — often struggle to ensure water levels are high enough to provide water to residents.
“In the larger framework in my own mind, I think West Virginia needs to be reminded that there are a lot of states fighting over water resources,” Capito said. “We have a really precious resource in our state, and we need to make sure we’re being good stewards and making changes where we need to.”