Senate Passes Drinking Water and Wastewater Reform

The Senate on Thursday passed legislation 37-0 that combines reform with increased commitments to improve existing partnerships with cities and towns, grow municipal options while incentivizing best management practices and responsibly address water and wastewater infrastructure challenges in the Commonwealth.

The Senate adopted an amendment offered by Senator Jehlen to provide cities and towns with better opportunities to access technical expertise as they develop water infrastructure plans for the future. The original bill expanded a Department of Environmental Protection planning and technical assistance grant program by $1.5 million to enable public entities to develop water pollution abatement plans, to develop water asset management plans, or to identify and plan for green infrastructure opportunities. Jehlen’s amendment added language clarifying that Regional Planning Authorities (RPA), on behalf of their member communities, are eligible to receive grants under this program to assist municipalities.

“I was pleased that the Senate passed this bill, acknowledging the importance of protecting our environment, our economy and our access to clean drinking water,” said Senator Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville. “The amendment will also enable RPAs to provide technical assistance to multiple communities on a more efficient regional or watershed basis. With experience, expertise, and interest in these topic areas, RPAs are in a strong position to provide assistance to cities and towns in these areas, particularly with identifying green infrastructure opportunities.”

The bill also significantly expands the spending capacity of the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust, formerly the Water Pollution Abatement Trust, with an increase from $88 million to $138 million and imposes a spending floor of 80 percent. To allow for more flexibility, the bill creates a sliding scale interest rate from 0 to 2 percent and establishes a principal forgiveness program for qualifying projects.

The Massachusetts Clean Water Trust currently holds a “AAA” rating from Moody’s, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s and is the only statewide municipal bond issuer to maintain a “AAA” from all three major rating agencies.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that the Commonwealth’s future will not be limited by our access to clean drinking water,” Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said. “This bill takes the first step in addressing our water and wastewater infrastructure challenges and I am proud of the Senate for taking action on this important issue. The state of our water infrastructure is strongly linked to the health of our economy and a commitment to improving our water infrastructure is a commitment to improving our economic strengths.”

To aid coastal towns in developing alternative wastewater disposal options, the bill amends the Ocean Sanctuaries Act to create an approval process through DEP for discharging municipally treated wastewater into ocean sanctuaries.

To defray the cost of the entry fee, which often acts as a barrier for cities and towns wanting to join the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), DEP is also permitted to administer a matching grant program for communities seeking to join the MWRA or any other regional system.

Created by the Legislature in 1984 to provide wholesale water and sewer services, 61 communities are MWRA members, including 51 for drinking water purposes and 43 for wastewater purposes. Member communities still operate their own local distribution networks, which connect to the MWRA.

The bill also does the following:

– Gives the Public-Private Partnership Oversight Commission authority to assist in evaluating proposal for public-private partnerships received by cities and towns;

– Simplifies the regulatory burden of complying with Title V;

– Encourages regional projects by allowing public entities to jointly apply for planning grants to develop water pollution abatement plans;

– Requires DEP to disseminate regulations requiring interruption devices on newly installed or renovated irrigation systems; and

– Requires the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust to consult with the Division of Local Services to establish and publish guidelines for best management practices in water management.

The bill will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration.

– Information from State Senator Patricia Jehlen’s office

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