In a sign that funding for wastewater treatment and drinking water facilities may be moving off the congressional back burner, key members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have introduced a bill that would authorize $35 billion over five years for water infrastructure, a large increase over current spending.

The bill, introduced by fisheries, wildlife and water subcommittee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.) on Feb. 15, focuses on Environmental Protection Agency aid to State Revolving Funds (SRFs). It would provide $20 billion for Clean Water SRFs and $15 billion for Safe Drinking Water SRFs.

Clean Water funds would rise from $3.2 billion in 2003 to $6 billion in 2007; authorizations for drinking water SRFs would increase from $1.5 billion in 2003 to $6 billion in 2007. Those sums represent a substantial hike over 2002 appropriations levels of $1.35 billion for Clean Water SRFs and $850 million for drinking water SRFs.

Graham says, "This bill represents a new awareness on the part of the federal government that our nation's water supply is becoming an increasingly precious resource." The bill is co-sponsored by full committee Chairman James M. Jeffords (Ind.-Vt.), ranking committee Republican Bob Smith of New Hampshire, and the water subcommittee's top GOP member, Michael Crapo of Idaho. The committee plans a hearing on the bill on Feb. 26.

The National Utility Contractors Association welcomed the new bill, says Eben Wyman, vice president for government relations. He says NUCA likes the bill's concentration on the SRFs.

The Water Environment Federation sees the funding as "a good start," says Tim Williams, government affairs director. But he also observes that the Water Infrastructure Network has said $57 billion in federal funding could be needed over that period. In addition, WEF is concerned about a provision in the bill that would require local wastewater treatment agencies to demonstrate their "technical, managerial and financial capacity" before getting SRF aid. The Senate committee says that provision is based on Safe Drinking Water Act mandates, but WEF's Williams says, "It would be a new requirement for the Clean Water side."

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee also is working on water legislation and could have a bill ready to be introduced in two or three weeks, says panel spokesman Steve Hansen.

Even if a water authorization measure is passed, congressional appropriations committees also must approve the funding.