Allocation of Wastewater Treatment Assistance: Formula and Other Changes

Source: Claudia Copeland, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report, RL31073, February 5, 2016

Congress established a statutory formula governing distribution of financial aid for municipal wastewater treatment in the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972. Since then, Congress has modified the formula and incorporated other eligibility changes five times, actions which have been controversial on each occasion. Federal funds are provided to states through annual appropriations according to the statutory formula to assist local governments in constructing wastewater treatment projects in compliance with federal standards. Congress has appropriated more than $91 billion since 1972. The formula originally applied to the act’s program of grants for constructing such projects. That grants program was replaced in the law in 1987 by a new program of federal grants to capitalize state revolving loan funds (SRFs) for similar activities. The most recent formula change, also enacted in 1987, continues to apply to federal capitalization grants for clean water SRFs. ….

… This report describes the formula and eligibility changes adopted by Congress since 1972, revealing the interplay and decisionmaking by Congress on factors to include in the formula. Two types of trends and institutional preferences can be discerned in these actions. First, there are differences over the use of need and population factors in the allocation formula itself. During the 1970s, the Senate strongly favored reliance on use of population factors in the allocation formula, while the House strongly advocated a needs – based approach. During the 1980s, the period when categorical eligibilities were restricted in order to emphasize water quality benefit s, the Senate favored needs as the basis for grants distribution, while the House position generally was to retain formulas used in prior years, which incorporate both needs and population elements. When population has been used as a factor, differences have occurred over whether a current or future year population estimate is appropriate, but there is no clear trend on this point.

Second, there have been gradual increases in restrictions on types of wastewater treatment projects eligible for federal assistance. Beginning with a limitation that denied use of federal funds for stormwater sewer projects in 1977, debate over categorical eligibility has had two elements. One has been fiscal: a desire to not fund types of projects with the highest costs and often the most unreliable cost estimates. The other focus has been environmental: a desire to use federal resources to assist projects which benefit water quality protection most directly. While some of these eligibility restrictions presented Congress with rat her straightforward choices, others have been more complex. Some continue to be debated, such as whether certain types of projects should be fully eligible for federal aid or should be the responsibility of state and local governments. …..