House and Senate Appropriations Committees have approved bills that increase Environmental Protection Agency funding for water infrastructure. However, while they hike drinking-water aid, they also cut funds for wastewater-treatment projects.

The next step would be potential floor votes, but it's unclear whether the bills will ever get to that point. For one thing, the legislative year is truncated by July's Republican and Democratic presidential conventions and the November elections.

In addition, both committees' measures include EPA policy riders that Republicans generally support but many Democrats do not. That split doesn't bode well for the bills' futures this year, lawmakers and industry officials say.

“The appropriations process is struggling,” observes Steve Hall, the American Council of Engineering Companies vice president of government affairs. “Certainly, we are going to need a short-term continuing resolution. And the question is, can we actually, perhaps after Election Day, wrap up the appropriations process or will Congress have to pass a longer-term CR?”

The House Appropriations Committee approved its measure funding EPA and the Interior Dept. on June 15; the Senate panel followed suit one day later. Both votes followed party lines.

There was contention over the environmental policy riders in both bills, including language to block EPA from implementing its new rule outlining which bodies of water qualify as “waters of the United States." Construction companies seeking to build in or near such federally regulated waters would have to get U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' permits.

At the Senate committee's voting session, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “It is quite likely that this bill will never get to the floor because of these riders.” Instead, Durbin said, the bill would more likely end up as part of a continuing resolution at the end of the year.

Senate interior and environment subcommittee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) challenged Democrats' claims that the riders were “poison pills.”

She said, “When we talk about what constitutes a ‘poison pill,’ it is probably in the eye of the beholder.” She noted that 32 states have requested that EPA’s "waters of the U.S." rule be withdrawn and observed that the regulation also has been stayed by federal courts until litigation is resolved. “The fact that we would include this should come as no surprise,” Murkowski said.

Sen. Tom Udall (N.M.), the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, acknowledged Murkowski’s willingness to work with him on Democratic priorities, including additional funding for water infrastructure.

But Udall added that he would have preferred a “clean" bill, without policy riders, which have derailed other measures on the Senate floor. “I’m not sure how many times we have to go through this process before it sinks in that adding controversial language doesn’t help get spending bills passed into law,” he said.

There was wide bipartisan agreement, however, on boosting water infrastructure funding. The $32-billion Senate bill increases funding for the clean-water and drinking-water state revolving funds (SRFs) by $113 million from the 2016-enacted level. Within the total, the committee hiked the drinking-water SRFs but pared the clean-water account.

The measure also provides $30 million for the fledgling Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, created by the 2014 Water Resources Reform and Development Act. This funding would allow WIFIA to subsidize its first federal loans.

The House committee's bill would increase the drinking-water SRF by $207 million above the  2016-enacted level, largely to help cities—such as Flint, Mich.—that have decaying drinking-water systems. The House bill is more generous than the Senate committee's to WIFIA, providing $50 million.

Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the House interior-environment subcommittee, said the WIFIA funds could support federal loans or loan guarantees to fund $3 billion to $5 billion in water infrastructure projects nationwide. 

But the House committee's bill also offsets the drinking-water boosts by cutting fiscal 2017 aid to clean-water SRFs by $394 million, or 28%, to $1 billion. The  subcommittee’s top Democrat, Betty McCollum (Minn.), said, “Clean water and safe drinking water go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other.”

The House bill also cuts EPA’s operating budget by $164 million. McCollum said, “This cut will impact the agency’s ability to protect human health and the health of our environment and to ensure clean air and clean water for our families and future generations.”

ACEC's Hall, says, “We’d like to see as much as possible in all the accounts. ... The amount of need out there is far more than what Congress is putting in the SRF accounts.”