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March 07, 2013
States seek raise in drinking water funds

The president of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states have developed partnerships of mutual respect in implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) but that states also urgently need more funding to administer their programs.

According to Sarah Pillsbury, also the administrator of New Hampshire’s drinking water program, the key source of federal funding for state drinking water programs is the Public Water Supply and Supervision (PWSS) grant and set-aside program.  PWSS grants are very flexible, says Pillsbury, and states have applied funds to address their own priorities.

The better-known federal assistance program, the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), is encumbered by set-asides, instructions from the fed that funds be used for specific purposes.  Pillsbury notes that in some states, SRFs are administered by a separate agency, and the drinking water primacy agency has little or no access to set-asides.

$200 million needed

But the PWSS has been flatlined at roughly $100 million per year for the past several years, that is, a “wholly inadequate” $2 million per state, says Pillsbury.  “These funds are supplemented to some extent, in most states, by state General funds and/or state fees for service charged to public water systems,” she adds.  “However these stated-based sources are insufficient to ensure a baseline of effective drinking water protection throughout the country, as called for under the SDWA.  There is no realistic expectation for significant increases in state funding in the near future.  In light of the above-described shortfall, we strongly recommend that Congress appropriate at least $200 million annually for the PWSS grant to states.”

Challenge of small systems

Pillsbury describes the major work of SDWA state primacy agencies as informing water systems about federal requirements and sometimes translating these requirements into user-friendly, state-specific regulations and guidance documents; providing training to water systems to enhance their overall technical, managerial, and financial capacities to comply with rules; and conducting on-site inspections and reviewing water quality reports to ensure public water systems comply with all drinking water requirements.

Probably the largest challenge faced by state water programs is assisting small systems (those serving fewer than 3,300 people) in understanding and complying with their regulatory obligations, says Pillsbury.  This job is made more difficult because the principal responsibilities of most public staff who manage small water systems typically do not involve the provision of safe water. 
EPA’s 4-year fracking study

In addition, federal drinking water regulations are complex and difficult to implement, says Pillsbury.  As an example, she referenced the recent suite of regulations addressing microbial contaminants and disinfection by-products (called the Long-term 2/Stage 2 rules).  These rules direct states to assign water systems into one of four bins—based on the microbiological threat posed—and tailor regulatory requirements accordingly.

Regarding the major environmental concern that hydraulic fracturing poses a risk to underground sources of drinking water, Pillsbury said most states are waiting for the results of EPA’s congressionally mandated 4-year study to shed light on the relationship between fracking and drinking water sources and whether states need to provide additional support.

Pillsbury provided her comments on the role of states in drinking water regulation to the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.

Click here for Pillsbury's testimony.

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