WASHINGTON, D.C. — With 83 communities struggling to afford costly but necessary renovations to sewer systems, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) today discussed legislation that would provide relief from high water rates to Ohio communities. Brown introduced the Clean Water Affordability Act and outlined how it would help communities make renovations to outdated sewer systems, while improving water quality and keeping rates affordable for residents and small business.

“Water and sewer infrastructure is critical to economic competiveness,” Brown said. “While all Ohioans deserve access to clean water, too many communities are struggling to afford costly, but necessary, upgrades to sewer systems. This bill is about helping local governments make these renovations and investing in Ohio’s long-term economic development.”

Tony Parrott, executive director of the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, discussed how Brown’s legislation will help Cincinnati lower water and sewer rates to attract new businesses and create jobs.

“This bill has elements that will bring relief to residents and businesses via the proposed Federal CSO grants, longer repayment schedules for SRF loans and extended compliance schedules for regulatory mandates,” Parrott said. “Further, it also sets in place a mandated process for EPA to implement and allow communities the flexibility to re-open existing Consent Decrees based on the communities current economic condition and the local communities’ desire to use more innovative and sustainable solutions to address CSO and SSO which in turn can bring value, community revitalization and job creation to urban communities. It is imperative that EPA shift the paradigm to become partners with local communities to facilitate the outcomes that are based on local priorities/needs and support solutions that will limit future liabilities on the overall environment and future generations.”

Brown also released a county-by-county map of Ohio communities with combined sewage overflow systems—outdated sewer systems that collect sewage and storm water, leading to overflows that can pollute drinking water. In the event of a storm or excessive rain, CSOs cannot handle both human wastewater and storm runoff at the same time. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and storm water are released through CSOs each year in the United States.

Federal guidelines require municipalities to renovate these outdated systems to protect human health and the environment, but upgrades often prove too costly for many small communities. According to EPA, communities across the nation face an estimated $63 billion in need for CSO renovations. These projects represent more than 25 percent of all wastewater needs reported in the most recent EPA needs survey.

A 2008 EPA survey showing 83 Ohio communities with serious sewage overflow problems amounts to a needed investment of $7.5 billion over the next twenty years. The report calculated there is an immediate need of more than $10 billion in Ohio for improvements in publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities.

The Clean Water Affordability Act is aimed at updating the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) clean water affordability policy, which can put undue strain on the budgets of local communities. The current EPA affordability policy does not provide for a full and accurate representation of the financial impacts of clean water investment programs on communities struggling to meet federal regulations for improving their water infrastructure.

The Clean Water Affordability Act authorizes $1.8 billion over five years for a grant program to help financially distressed communities update their aging infrastructure. The program would provide a 75-25 cost share for municipalities to use for planning, design, and construction of treatment works to control combined and sanitary sewer overflows. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), which represents the sewer districts, has endorsed the legislation.  

The legislation would also establish that:

  • The implementation schedule for water quality related improvements must be tailored to the affected community’s unique financial condition.
  • A financial capability assessment should consider more broadly each community’s economic situation.
  • Environmental improvements should be structured to mitigate the potential adverse impact of their cost on distressed populations.
  • Allows for reopening of approved Long Term Control Plans for green infrastructure projects.
  • Payback of State Revolving Fund loans are extended from 20 to 30 years
  • Establishes integrated permitting that requires EPA to prioritize the funding of most cost-effective and most important water quality projects.