/ Articles / Thoughts from Engineers: Initial Reactions from the Water Infrastructure Act of 2018

Thoughts from Engineers: Initial Reactions from the Water Infrastructure Act of 2018

Chris Maeder on January 14, 2019 - in Articles, Column

America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 (AWIA 2018) or S. 3021 was signed into law by President Trump on Oct. 23, 2018, and outlines an ambitious course of action with respect to the nation’s navigable waterways and built water infrastructure. (To read AWIA 2018 in its entirety, visit bit.ly/2KBK9o6.) The law provides more than $6 billion in funds for a range of water infrastructure projects, including navigation; ports, harbors and inland waterways; wetland and ecosystem restoration; flood protection; and hydropower.

The Act, however, includes more than authorization for the traditional U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) dam and levee projects; it strives to fortify other systems as well. A large emphasis is placed on drinking water infrastructure, and the law mandates higher standards for risk-assessment, monitoring and consumer reporting for community drinking water systems. The law also addresses managing Asian Carp’s access to the Great Lakes, controlling toxic algae blooms in South Florida, and analyzing the potential of existing dams and ports as sources of renewable energy. The use of innovative water technologies developed and manufactured in the United States is encouraged where feasible, and a new fund is earmarked to incentivize this objective.

A Faster Track

AWIA 2018 deauthorizes several projects that languished or stalled since authorization in 2014, but it includes language designed to foster efficiency and expedite the implementation of future water projects, whether initiated by USACE or non-federal sponsors. Representative Garret Graves of Louisiana and Chairman of the House Water Resources Subcommittee commented after passage of the Senate version of the law: “This bill is about delivering proactive solutions so communities actually benefit from projects instead of having to endure decades of studies and inaction.”

Toward this end, Congress gives the National Academy of Sciences and the Secretary of the USACE the mandate to analyze the U.S. Army Corps’ methods, processes and organizational structure with the overarching goal of achieving higher levels of efficiency, transparency and accountability when it comes to completing water projects. The Act aims to provide more flexibility in the use of federal and non-federal funds, alternative financing measures, and contracting tools.

Will the methodologies of USACE and others who have managed the nation’s built water infrastructure to date evolve and change in coming years in response to the incentives of AWIA? Will local communities play a larger role and take advantage of new opportunities to fund and design projects according to unique local resources and circumstances?

Revamp Drinking Water Infrastructure

The law reauthorizes certain funding programs that had lapsed in past years, such as EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The 2018 Act reauthorizes funding—on the order of $1.174 to $1.95 billion each year for three years—to finance projects that upgrade drinking water systems.

The Act sets new standards with respect to consumer reporting and requires the EPA to issue new requirements for clarity and understandability, particularly when levels for regulated contaminants have been exceeded or other violations have occurred. For systems that serve larger populations, more frequent reporting is required (up to several times a year). Communities will be required to perform a number of regular risk assessments relating to natural hazards as well as cyber risks, use and management of chemicals, maintenance and capital needs, and other issues.

The law addresses the needs of underserved communities such as tribal communities. Indian Reservations are authorized to receive money from a $20 million annual fund for drinking water projects. Also authorized are state-driven initiatives to improve drinking water infrastructure in disadvantaged rural and urban areas.

Several centers around the country are developing cutting-edge water technologies, particularly for drinking water systems. AWIA 2018 provides incentives for the use of these new technologies in existing or new water systems, generating employment and demand for U.S. manufactured products.

Water’s Increased Significance

Traditionally, USACE has focused on structural measures to address flood control and management, ecosystem restoration and other issues. AWIA 2018 mandates that feasibility studies also include consideration of natural infrastructure options alone or in combination with traditional infrastructure methodologies. This section recognizes the value of wetlands, coastal estuaries and other natural systems in floodwater retention and storm protection.

The introductory passages of AWIA 2018 stress the importance of a robust and well-maintained system of water infrastructure to the nation’s growth, security, safety and economic vitality. To underline the significance of this issue, the law requires that Congress revisit the nation’s water infrastructure needs on a two-year cycle.

“It is the sense of Congress that, because the missions of the Corps of Engineers for navigation, flood control, beach erosion control and shoreline protection, hydroelectric power, recreation, water supply, environmental protection, restoration and enhancement, and fish and wildlife mitigation benefit all Americans, and because water resources development projects are critical to maintaining the country’s economic prosperity, national security, and environmental protection, Congress should consider a water resources development bill not less often than once every Congress.” (Sec. 1101, AWIA 2018)

It is clear that Congress intended to address some key water management issues of the last decade with AWIA, and drinking water quality loomed large in view of the crises at Flint, Mich., and elsewhere. A few questions come to mind: Will the methodologies of USACE and others who have managed the nation’s built water infrastructure to date evolve and change in coming years in response to the incentives of AWIA? Will local communities play a larger role and take advantage of new opportunities to fund and design projects according to unique local resources and circumstances? AWIA 2018 offers the potential for new gains to be made across the country in terms of water management.
Let’s see it all unfold.

Chris Maeder

About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: chris.maeder@civilgeo.com.

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