Greater Investment Will Fix the Nation’s Water
Investment Needs Greater Accessibility and Transparency
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is the largest investment in water the country has ever seen. But, it could have two major problems when it comes to implementation. IIJA’s water investments are designed to improve drinking and wastewater systems, promote clean water projects and to ensure disadvantaged communities benefit from the program. IIJA will allocate $50 billion in the next 5 years to the State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs. To succeed in getting the transformational funding spent effectively through the SRFs, the states and EPA must work together to address shortcomings. If there is not greater emphasis on accessibility and transparency in the state revolving fund programs, IIJA funding will not realize its full potential, and could very well fail at achieving its primary goals.
A primary goal of IIJA’s funding program is to ensure new water infrastructure investments are spent equitably and that they reach communities that have historically been unable to access funds. The Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs) are state and federal partnership programs that provide low-interest loans for projects that improve water quality. Through the State Revolving Funds forty-nine percent of the allocated money will go to underserved communities as zero percent interest loans or grants. This is in the spirit of the White House’s larger “Justice 40” strategy, with the goal of 40 percent of the benefits from federal investments going to disadvantaged communities. Both the elevated emphasis on reaching new potential funding recipients and the large increase in funds available will create a logjam for states without improvements in outreach, accessibility, and transparency.
How the SRFs Work
The over $50 billion provided by IIJA will be transformative for water infrastructure needs and go a long way in providing access to clean water for underserved communities. There are, however, several barriers that IIJA must overcome that are baked into the way the SRF programs operate. The SRFs are mostly state run in policies and practices, which limits how much authority EPA has when giving guidance. It also means that the programs vary greatly from state to state. This leads to inequitable and uneven program strategies that can leave communities behind.
To receive IIJA funding potential awardees must go through the application process. Regardless of the state, applying is not simple. It often requires a great deal of planning and an intimate understanding of the state’s SRF program’s policies and practices. To grasp a state’s SRF programs, a potential applicant must read through that state’s Drinking Water or Clean Water State Revolving Fund Intended Use Plan (depending on the type of project being funded). The Intended Use Plans (IUPs) are documents provided to EPA every year for approval. It is where a state can differentiate their priorities and how they allocate the funds. Importantly, it provides guidance on the types of projects the state is looking to fund through its SRF programs. Reading through a state’s IUPs is the best way to evaluate their SRF programs and the best place for potential applicants to start before submitting a proposal.
Barriers to Accessibility
It Can be Difficult to Find a State’s Intended Use Plan
Many of the state’s SRF programs are not easily understood by potential applicants. Finding the appropriate IUP can be challenging for new applicants as well. Learning about the SRF programs requires understanding who is administering the program and where they house the IUPs. This can be complicated as some states house the IUPs in two different places, as one agency may administer the drinking water SRF with another administering the clean water SRF. For many states, the IUP is not easily found for new applicants. Oftentimes the IUP is buried under several broader subjects within their websites and only those who are already well-versed in the SRF programs would have a reasonable chance of finding them. Some states have investment authorities created with the explicit purpose of administering and allocating SRF funds. These investment authorities often have the more easily navigable websites for potential applicants as they do not have other responsibilities and can highlight the application process and IUPs more clearly on their homepage.
Being able to easily find and clearly understand a program’s IUP is critical for IIJA’s environmental justice requirements. Each state has its own definition of what demographics make up a “disadvantaged community” and only a thorough reading of the IUP will glean that information. Applicants hoping to receive IIJA funding through the disadvantaged community category would need to ensure that their community meets the requirements. If a potential applicant cannot reasonably find out where that information is even housed, they cannot hope to apply. EPA could help solve the inconsistency of the IUP housing by creating a “one stop shop” database where all the IUPs are housed.
There is Inconsistent Information on How to Apply
Each state also varies greatly on the information given publicly regarding how to apply for potential funding. Some states give detailed information, webinar recordings, flowcharts, and step by step procedures for potential applicants to digest. Other states give no information at all other than what is provided in the IUPs. If IIJA is to succeed in administering and allocating water infrastructure funds for everyone equitably then there needs to be clearer information for every program on how to apply and clearer outreach to communities that have previously not applied, or not finished an application.
To reach IIJA requirements proactive outreach needs to happen to new communities. Part of the proactive outreach needed for every state is the need for a clear person of contact for a potential applicant to reach out to with any questions. Not every state has this basic information available. Even this small step would lead to new projects being funded and is easily achievable.
A greater emphasis on accessibility and outreach would lead to greater visibility of the SRF programs, and therefore would result in cleaner water in communities that have been left behind.
Barriers to Transparency
There is a Need for Publicly Available Data
As of right now there is no consistency in data for what has been funded or what will be funded through the SRF programs. This makes program evaluation nearly impossible. With the data availability as it is right now there would be no way of knowing if IIJA funds were properly allocated after the 5-year period is over. There have been few states that have taken it upon themselves to make data available to the public such as Michigan’s GIS map, but this is the exception over the rule. EPA should request this data from the states and make it publicly available.
Comment Period Transparency
By law every state must have a 30-day public comment period after drafting their IUPs for EPA review. This is the best chance for advocates to give feedback to the states. The states must then publicly address these comments and explain how they’re changing their IUPs in accordance to what was written, or why they won’t be changing the IUP despite the comment suggesting to do so. Despite this legal requirement, in the last year, 16% of the states did not publish when their comment period would be taking place in a publicly available place. The majority of states also did not publicly address received comments. If the public participation requirements set forth by the SRF enabling legislation cannot be adhered to, then hopes of equitable disbursement of water infrastructure funds cannot be realized and IIJA funding will not reach its full potential.
A Path Forward
Both accessibility and transparency concerns can be addressed with diligence from state investment authorities and agencies and with EPA’s guidance. The apparatus is there for accessible and clear funding opportunities. When advocates and government officials work together to clear up some of these remaining hurdles, IIJA funds will begin to create a new future for water infrastructure.