Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Congress’s Role in Funding Water Infrastructure

Our public infrastructure has been in disrepair for far too long. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, our nation’s roads, highways, bridges, railways, airports, and water systems will require $4.6 trillion in investments before 2025. However, current funding levels are falling short of our infrastructure needs, and there will be an estimated $2 trillion funding gap.

Water infrastructure in particular has been a challenge for municipalities. I hold a town hall in each of Oregon’s 36 counties every year. Before each town hall, I meet with local elected officials to hear about the challenges and successes they are seeing in their communities. For years, in almost every meeting that I held, in every corner of Oregon, I heard about the challenges of finding funding to replace or upgrade aging water infrastructure. Local leaders told me there was no affordable financing available for these big projects. This left local governments in a bind: They were forced to choose between sticking with old water systems that were outdated, too small for growing populations, or sometimes even downright dangerous, or sticking ratepayers with a huge increase on their water bills.

This is unacceptable, which is why I’ve used my role in the United States Senate to help communities in Oregon and across the nation in a few key ways.

Early in my senate service, I won bipartisan support for a new program called the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). I created this program, housed in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, after hearing from communities across Oregon that affordable financing for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects wasn’t easily accessible. I introduced legislation creating the WIFIA program in 2012; it was signed into law in 2014 and officially launched in 2017.

WIFIA credit assistance allows projects to lock in financing savings at today’s low rates for the duration of the entire project. And unlike commercial bond transactions, payments on borrowed funds do not begin until the funds are received by the projects, adding to the savings for ratepayers.

Just last fall we broke ground on Oregon’s first WIFIA project. A total of $638 million was provided to the Tualatin Valley Water District and the City of Hillsboro, where ratepayers will save an estimated $264 million in financing costs. Also last fall, we announced low-interest WIFIA financing for the Bull Run Treatment Program and the Water Supply Improvement Program, which will serve the greater Portland area for generations to come. Partners will be able to apply for up to $554 million and $58 million, respectively, in financing. With interest rates around 2 percent, the financing will save ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

In July 2019, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, of which I am a member, passed the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA), a bill that authorizes and funds the nation’s surface transportation system over the next 5 years (the current authorization expires in fiscal year 2020). The next 5-year bill authorizes $287 billion, an increase of nearly 28 percent over previous levels. Although this bipartisan bill was not as ambitious as I believe we need to be, I was encouraged that many of the priorities I pushed for were included. These included grants for rural infrastructure, funding for resiliency measures to counter the effects of climate chaos, electric vehicle infrastructure, and public transit funding.

Senator Merkley attends the groundbreaking of the WIFIA-funded Willamette Water Supply Program.

 

This bill is an important step forward. A major investment in infrastructure is critical to the long-term competitiveness of our economy and is a way to create good, living-wage jobs. As Congress works to develop a comprehensive public infrastructure plan, I will continue fighting for policies that support local communities, maintain environmental and labor protections, and make real and sizable investments in clean energy technology.

In 2013, I joined the Senate Appropriations Committee so that Oregon would have a strong voice in decisions about the investments our nation should be making. I am still the only member of Congress from Oregon from either chamber to serve on the Appropriations Committee, considered to be one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. One of the most gratifying aspects of serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee is that I get to work with communities across the state to fund their needs, and then see the effects of the funding in action. For instance, I’ve prioritized infrastructure funding for small ports, which are the lifeblood of Oregon’s coastal economy. This year, the small ports and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Navigation program received over $600 million for deep-draft harbor and channel improvements, $50 million for inland waterways, $24 million for navigation maintenance, and $54 million for small ports.

I’ve also worked to support various funding mechanisms for seismically at-risk dams—which, if they fail, threaten public health, drinking water supplies, and economies. As municipalities like the City of Newport pursue Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to address safety challenges with two dams on the Big Creek, I will not only continue to do what I can to support the city’s funding request, but also ensure the agency has resources for such requests.

Federally managed dams like Scoggins Dam in Washington County also face seismic risks. Scoggins Dam is classified as one of the Bureau of Reclamation’s most seismically at-risk dams, which means that if the dam isn’t upgraded, its failure due to a large earthquake could result in significant damage or even loss of life. So for several years, I’ve been able to use my seat on the Appropriations Committee to secure millions of dollars for upgrades.

Everywhere I go in Oregon—rural or urban, east or west—people are looking for help building and rebuilding for the future. They know building stuff means good jobs now, and that there’s no shortage of important work to do. If we are serious about investing in our communities and our future, we should do far more infrastructure building, and fund the roads, bridges, and water infrastructure improvements every community needs.

Jeff Merkley is a United States senator for Oregon. To contact Senator Merkley’s office, visit merkley.senate.gov.