MWDN: Water infrastructure bill awaits governor’s signature

By Kendall Hatch

A $138 million water infrastructure bill pushed by a pair of MetroWest legislators is awaiting Gov. Deval Patrick’s signature after clearing the House and Senate before the end of the formal legislative session last week.

The passage of the bill came as the culmination of a four-year push by state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and state Rep, Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston.

The legislation to fund replacement of water and sewer pipes, pumping stations and wastewater treatment systems came after an analysis of needs by the state Water Infrastructure Finance Commission, which released its final report in 2012. Eldridge and Dykema served as co-chairman of the Commission, which was established in 2009.

The bill, Eldridge and Dykema said on Tuesday, is a step toward making sure the state can meet its current and future water infrastructure needs, but a great deal of work remains to be done. Eldridge said the 2012 Commission report estimated that the state faces a $10.2 billion water funding gap over the next 20 years, as well as an $11.2 billion wastewater funding gap over the same period.

A key provision in the legislation will go toward narrowing that gap by boosting how much the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust can spend, from $88 million to $138 million. The Clean Water Trust, formerly called the Water Pollution Abatement Trust, offers financing to municipalities and other entities for water and wastewater infrastructure projects. The legislation also dictates that at least 80 percent of the $138 million in spending capacity should be used each year and creates a sliding scale interest rate that ranges from 0 percent to 2 percent.

“There will be more capacity for projects – more projects will get approved,” Eldridge said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The bill also seeks to create incentives for environmentally sound water and sewer projects by creating a definition for “green infrastructure” and setting aside money to identify opportunities for green projects in the state. It would also make green infrastructure projects eligible for certain grants and give them preferential financing through the Clean Water Trust.

Eldridge said an example of green infrastructure could be a decentralized treatment systems that would have a number of small treatment systems for smaller geographic areas instead of pumping water or wastewater long distances to be treated at large central treatment facilities.

Dykema said that she first became interested in water infrastructure on the local level, as Holliston discovered the extent of the repairs needed on its many miles of underground pipe, to the tune of about $1 million per mile.

The legislation, she said, establishes best practices for managing and maintaining water and wastewater systems, so towns and cities won’t be left blindsided by problems that could have been identified earlier or prevented through proper maintenance.

Eldridge and Dykema said they are excited about a provision in the bill that provides $1.5 million for a water technology innovation grant program, administered by the state Clean Energy Center, to promote the water technology industry in Massachusetts.

An initiative strongly supported by Patrick, the grant program would seek to establish Massachusetts as a “water innovation cluster,” Eldridge said.

“There are a lot of companies out there and environmental groups that are really on the cutting edge,” Eldridge said.

The legislation also creates a water infrastructure advisory committee that will report back to the Legislature to ensure the state is on track, Dykema said.

“This issue is not off the radar screen simply because we passed this legislation,” she said.

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