MWDN: Senate passes bill to ease water department debts

By Allison DeAngelis, Daily News Correspondent

BOSTON — The state Senate unanimously approved legislation Thursday that will provide more than $50 million in funding to municipalities struggling to maintain and update water infrastructure systems.

“This bill is creating a stronger framework to make sure the state is supporting communities, but also pushing them to be a little more innovative,” said Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, who filed the original legislation.

A special commission on water infrastructure finance headed by Eldridge and Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, found that the commonwealth faces a gap of more than $21 billion between current funding levels and necessary funding over the next 20 years.

Towns such as Holliston, Hopkinton, and Hudson were just a few MetroWest communities that have struggled to fund water system improvements.

A 2012 water quality report found high levels of manganese in Hudson’s water supply. Although the amount was is not above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection safety standards, residents have complained about the resulting yellow- or brown-colored water.

“Ultimately, those things are happening because we don’t have the most up-to-date water infrastructure in every community,” said Eldridge.

Dykema said that compared to more urban areas, MetroWest is underserved by its current water infrastructure.

“We talk about MetroWest as an economic engine and somewhere that’s going to grow, but these municipalities can’t grow without infrastructure support, and a key infrastructure to work on is water,” she said.

Under the legislation, the maximum state funding for the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust (formerly the Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust) will increase from $88 million to $138 million.

Additionally, 80 percent of funding must now go towards community debt assistance.

A report from the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission found that many municipalities have taken on increasing levels of debt in order to maintain their water infrastructure and meet various obligations for mandated improvement projects.

Holliston officials told the commission that 40 percent of the town’s annual water department budget was being used to pay interest on loans for past projects.

Eldridge said the debt relief provided by the $50 million in additional funding will help spur investment in individual community water systems.

However, $450 million in funding for the trust included in the initial bill was cut by the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.

With a $12.7 billion transportation bonding bill moving through the Senate, Eldridge said it was difficult to convince the Patrick administration to approve the additional $250 million for the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust that would have come from bond sales.

The bill will now head to the House, where Dykema said she hopes to regain some of the cut funding.

“[The funding cut] is a disappointment. This is a very big step forward. But, I have been a big advocate for doing more now because these issues aren’t going to go away,” she said.

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