Local Water, Sewer Projects May Flow From Infrastructure Funding

March 31, 2021
A water treatment plant in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. Photo: Florida Water Daily, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Local Water, Sewer Projects May Flow From Infrastructure Funding

By Joseph A. Davis

Water infrastructure in your area: Is it shovel-ready? Is it funding-ready?

Water infrastructure projects are almost certainly coming your way, as part of an all-out federal push to fix the infrastructure. And they will bring not only more jobs, but more environmental stories.

One of several federal programs affecting water pollution is known as WIFIA (for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act of 2014). Even Republicans like it. Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt always put out a proud press release whenever he awarded millions of WIFIA dollars to some deserving locality.

Now, as President Joe Biden and a Democrat-controlled Congress get ready for the Herculean effort of passing an “infrastructure” bill, we can expect WIFIA (and programs like it) to be conduits for larger amounts of federal money. 

There is a “pipeline” for projects seeking funding and an established administrative mechanism for vetting and funding them. Most importantly, WIFIA and similar programs are not partisan or politically controversial. The prospect of more money could actually increase support in Congress.

WIFIA money can go toward both drinking water and sewage treatment projects. The money amounts to loan guarantees, which means the federal dollars can be highly leveraged. A small federal layout can back a much larger local project.


Why it matters

In short, there are a great many places in the United States where wastewater and drinking water systems are inadequate and harming people’s health. This may mean pathogens carrying disease, chemical pollutants threatening toxic harm or nutrients like nitrogen that fertilize fish-killing algae.


Many poorer and smaller

municipalities and rural areas

cannot keep waterways unpolluted.


Some of the bigger cities have enough money to keep up much of the time, but many poorer and smaller municipalities and rural areas cannot keep waterways unpolluted. Nor can they deliver clean, healthful drinking water to people’s taps. And in some locales, closed beaches mean lost tourist dollars.

The prevailing model for water infrastructure is that local governments pay the lion’s share by borrowing (municipal bonds) and repaying debt through user fees or taxes over a period that may span decades. 

Yet many municipalities are so hard up for cash that paying for adequate water systems is difficult or impossible. A number of federal and state programs (WIFIA being only one) help local governments borrow by loaning money or backing loans.


The backstory

Federal money has flowed toward water infrastructure for many decades. When the 1972 Clean Water Act called for fishable, swimmable waters, it also funded an immense grant program to help localities build sewage pipes and treatment plants. It was the second-biggest federal infrastructure program (after interstate highways) in U.S. history.

But austerity and cleaner water in later years transformed the original EPA “construction grants” program to a system of revolving loan funds for both wastewater and drinking water systems. 

The WIFIA program supplemented those with a system that was more flexible and more highly leveraged. As federal funding for locks, dams and canals waned, WIFIA offered a new brand of environmental pork.


Story ideas

With a little reporting, you can probably find examples of unmet drinking water and sewage treatment needs near you. The question is: Will any new federal infrastructure funding (perhaps labelled “green”) help provide resources to meet them?

  • Talk to the mayor and county executive, the city or county council, and staff and members of your local water authorities to find out what water infrastructure projects they are hoping to fund.
  • Check the pollution reports for your local waterways to see how bad and how frequent any pollution incidents may be.
  • Look at the “consumer confidence reports” and “source water assessments” from your local drinking water utilities (they should be on the utility’s website). What problems do they show? What are the fixes?
  • Look at EPA’s ECHO database to see if your local sewage and drinking water systems have any recent violations? If so, what are the fixes? 


Reporting resources

After you talk to local officials, check the records available from EPA about past or potential WIFIA projects.

EPA publishes lists of the loans it has completed every year. Look at these to see if any ongoing projects are in your area. 

Here’s a map of projects approved by EPA to apply for WIFIA loan backing. You can zoom in on the area or areas of interest to you. Currently, it shows 144 projects.

Here’s another map of projects that have sent EPA “letters of interest” about potential future loans. It currently shows 223 projects.

And, finally, don’t forget to look at this list of “closed loans” under WIFIA to see if any are for projects of interest in your area.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 13. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: