Responding to Maryland’s water woes, the Environmental Protection Agency will make $144 million in funds from President Biden’s infrastructure bill available to the state for improvements to drinking water systems and wastewater management.
The funding includes $76 million being made available now to the Maryland Department of the Environment for distribution to cities and other local municipalities after an outbreak of E. coli contamination earlier this month in Baltimore’s drinking water and what state environmental regulators have called catastrophic failures at the city’s two wastewater treatment plants.
Another $68 million from the infrastructure bill will be awarded in fiscal 2023, which begins Oct. 1, for replacing lead water lines and treating so-called emerging pollutants in wastewater and stormwater. Those pollutants include per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, as well as a range of pharmaceuticals and hormones found in human effluent, agricultural products and personal care and household cleaning products, all of which can have a devastating impact on fish and other aquatic species.
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Baltimore’s two wastewater treatment plants, Back River and Patapsco—the largest in the state—were cited earlier this year by the Department of the Environment for dumping large quantities of untreated sewage and pollutants into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Failures at those plants contributed to significant increases in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution last year in the bay, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, a regional partnership between government agencies at all levels, environmental groups and academic institutions.
Water quality must improve in 70 percent of the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries if the estuary is to function as a healthy ecosystem, the Chesapeake Bay Program announced mid-September while sharing 2018-2020 data assessment, which showed that the water quality in the Bay decreased by 3.5 percent compared to 2017-2019.
The infrastructure legislation, passed last year, allocates more than $50 billion to EPA for repairing the nation’s essential water infrastructure to help communities access clean, safe and reliable drinking water, increase resilience, collect and treat wastewater to protect public health, clean up pollution and safeguard vital waterways.
Adam Ortiz, the EPA’s administrator for the mid-Atlantic region, said in an interview that the new waves of funding represent an opportunity to take care of liabilities that the communities have lived with for too long. “Whether it’s the delivery of safe and clean drinking water, or the treatment of wastewater that ends up going into our local streams, and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay, these investments are a long time coming. But we’re glad that they’re here,” he said.
Some of the emerging pollutants are much more hazardous to human health than previously thought, Ortiz said, referring to the grants dealing with the mostly unregulated chemicals and compounds imperiling the waterways and aquatic life. “We have to help all these utilities, whether they’re large or small, to step up, and the infrastructure does not always keep up with the science. But this is our opportunity to close that gap,” he said.
The $144 million in infrastructure funding will be allocated through Maryland’s Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which are loan programs between the federal government and the states that provide grants and low-interest loans to local governments for community infrastructure projects, such as improving wastewater treatment facilities.
“The interest provided by these loans help fund the program in subsequent years—creating a ‘revolving’ fund which allows each state’s program to grow independently,” said Sean Jackson, national water campaigns coordinator for Clean Water Action, an environmental nonprofit. While the EPA provides guidance and some rules that each state must follow, the states have a great deal of leeway in how they administer and allocate their SRF funds, he added.
Under the infrastructure bill, nearly half of the funding available through the state SRFs must be made available in grants or forgivable loans to make it easier for the local governments and municipalities to invest in essential water infrastructure in underserved communities. The SRFs also come under the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, a commitment to provide at least 40 percent of certain federal program spending to low-income communities and communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by air and water pollution and the negative effects of climate change .
“In lower income communities these cash grants and loan forgiveness funds can make an enormous difference in lowering the burden of fixing crumbling infrastructure,” said Evan Isaacson, senior attorney with the nonprofit Chesapeake Legal Alliance.
He said it is important for states to receive these periodic infusions of “catch-up” funds for infrastructure, and added that over the years these federal infrastructure funds have expanded to include innovative projects dealing with energy efficiency, climate resilience and green infrastructure. “If implemented well, the funds will also go to projects in the right communities consistent with the Justice40 initiative. This is a big deal even if it’s small compared to the overall need,” Isaacson said.
Jackson, the water campaigns coordinator for Clean Water Action, called the funding “a long-time coming” and said that the “EPA has long stated that it would require nearly $800 billion to just meet and maintain water costs, with an additional trillion needed to adapt water systems to the upcoming demands of climate change.”
The funds are enough to make some headway, especially in long forgotten communities, Jackson said. “One thing that will be beneficial for many states is the ability to do a full inventory of the water systems to ensure that there is no lead in the drinking water,” he said. “There is a separate fund for lead line replacement. For states that don’t have a known lead line problem, the funds can be used to ensure that is the case.”
Ten percent of the funds have to be used for green or innovative projects, which, Jackson said, could really help curb the flooding and heat islands that have plagued Maryland this past decade.
The $76 million now available to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) may take more than a year for the EPA to fully allocate because of a larger than normal number of grant and loan applications, an agency spokesperson said.