Water Issues Discussed at 2017 Regional/Water District Issues Forum

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Rural Water Association held the 2017 Regional/Water District Forum April 11-12 in Washington, D.C. The forum is designed to provide a personalized briefing from top-level congressional, agency and industry experts to address the issues facing Rural Water Association Members.

Attendees received briefings on Infrastructure Funding, Appropriations, 1926(b) Protections, Regulations, the next Farm Bill, the Drinking Water Affordability Act and Cybersecurity. They were also able to discuss the topics with presenters and offer feedback in a small group setting.

The Funding Panel included Kent Evans, Director of the USDA Rural Utilities Service Water Programs, Dr. Andrew Sawyers, Director of EPA’s Wastewater Office, and Chris Shaffner, Sector Vice President from CoBank.

Evans highlighted the effectiveness of Rural Development loans and grants. RD loans and grants remain the main funding mechanism for water and wastewater utilities in Rural America. These loans boast exceptionally low delinquency rates and can provide historically-low interest rates.

Dr. Sawyers reviewed the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The WIFIA program is designed to accelerate investment in water and wastewater infrastructure by providing long-term, low-cost, supplemental credit assistance under customized terms to creditworthy water and wastewater projects of national and regional significance. Attendees raised concerns that the $100,000 application fee and minimum project size of $5 million would create obstacles for small communities who want to access the program. Sawyers acknowledged the concerns and appreciated the feedback.

Shaffner provided information about CoBank and its programs. CoBank is a borrower-owned financial cooperative specifically chartered to provide dependable credit to agriculture and infrastructure in
Rural America. Shaffner highlighted the bank’s flexibility in loan structure and their variety of loan products including interim loans, refinance loans, term loans, USDA guarantee loans, and planning and design lines of credit.

Attendees were interested in President Trump’s plans for infrastructure. While all the panelists were aware of the general efforts, they had few details. All the panelists agreed that current discussions included public private partnerships and tax incentives. The specific measures that make the program and the timeline are still “up in the air.”

Fitz Elder, Deputy Staff Director of the Senate Appropriations Committee, came to inform the attendees about the current Appropriations Outlook. Current funding will expire on April 28, but Elder was optimistic there would be a funding bill by the end of the month. The largest sticking point is funding for a border wall. Elder expects numerous funding battles for 2018 appropriations. He said that the USDA Water and Wastewater Loan and Grant Program would probably not be zeroed out, but that it was important for rural systems to continue to contact their legislators.

Jim Herring, Attorney at Law from the Herring, Long and Crews firm based in Canton, Mississippi gave a detailed presentation about the history of 1926(b) protection. This protection established the rule that no municipality or other public body may curtail the water or sewer services or a rural water association indebted to USDA/Rural Development. The presentation included a packet entitled “The Odyssey” which included over 100 pages of case law, maps, and court rulings on the law.

Dr. Peter Grevatt, EPA’s Director of Ground Water and Drinking Water started his presentation by detailing his visits to small community water systems and stating that he was impressed with Rural Water’s work. This year the EPA will consider new rules regarding unregulated contaminant monitoring, perchlorate and lead and copper. The conversation immediately to the Lead and Copper Rule. Dr. Grevatt admitted that the rule is expensive and burdensome but pointed out that the catastrophe in Flint made it important to get right.

Darin Guries, Professional Staff member for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and Mr. Keith Heard, former Chief of Staff to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) provided some insight into the Farm Bill process and encouraged Rural Water to remain engaged throughout the process.

Jason Isakovic, Legislative Director, for Representative Latta (R-OH) introduced attendees to HR 1653- The Drinking Water Affordability Act. The bill provides flexibility under Drinking Water State Revolving Funds and federal authorities to help large, small, and disadvantaged public water systems improve their infrastructure and ensure safer drinking water and better protection of public health.

Michael Marlow and Steve Mustard of the Automation Federation, Eric Goldstein from DHS and Adam Sedgewick from NIST finished the agenda by discussing the state of cybersecurity policy in the federal government and how cyber vulnerabilities and threats can truly impact a system. NRWA and the Automation Federation have partnered to assess cybersecurity awareness in water and wastewater systems and develop training to increase preparedness.  Both organizations are collecting information via an online survey available Here.

NRWA President Steve Fletcher concluded the Forum by thanking the participants for their active discussion and participation.  Fletcher stated that in his view, it has never been more important for Rural Water members to get involved and tell their story.