By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- After agreeing to a plan allowing a new local option water surcharge, the Senate unanimously passed legislation Thursday aimed at addressing some of the unmet funding needs for water infrastructure projects in Massachusetts.
Senate President Therese Murray, who has several communities in her district facing water infrastructure challenges, pushed the water infrastructure needs as a priority this session, along with Sen. James Eldridge - who headed up a two-year-long commission studying the issue.
Rep. Carolyn Dykema, a Democrat from Holliston, has been pushing the issue in the House, where the bill heads next, and co-chaired the Water Infrastructure Finance Commission along with Eldridge.
A Senate Ways and Means version of the bill (S 2016) passed 37 to 0, with several amendments adopted that were filed by both Democrats and Republicans.
"This bill that was debated today is a really strong bill that will not only create investments in water infrastructure but better protect the environment, and create incentives for green infrastructure," Eldridge said after the bill passed.
The bill authorizes low-interest loans for water infrastructure projects and establishes criteria for the loan process. It requires the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust - the new name for the Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust - to create a sliding scale interest rate, from 0 to 2 percent on loans for qualifying projects.
The bill increases a contract assistance ceiling from $88 million a year to $138 million per year and requires the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust to commit 80 percent of that limit and report to the Legislature in any year that the threshold is not met.
The bill also authorizes cities and towns to collect impact fees to help offset environmental impacts caused by developments requiring new or increased water and sewer system withdrawals. The bill calls for fees to be assessed in a "fair and equitable manner" and allows separate fees for residential and commercial usage.
On a voice vote, senators rejected an amendment to the bill that would ban hydraulic fracking to extract natural gas, filed by Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives (D-Newburyport).
Environmentalists applauded the bill's passage.
"I think it is great this bill does a lot to level the playing field for green infrastructure," Steve Long, government relations director at the Nature Conservancy said.
Incentives for green infrastructure - which uses nature to help provide clean drinking and stormwater - are embedded throughout the bill, Long said. The legislation allows for reduced financing for green infrastructure projects, which will go a long way to help achieve clean water goals, he said.
Senators adopted an amendment establishing a local option water surcharge for communities. Cities and towns that vote to adopt the program could levy a water infrastructure surcharge up to 3 percent, similar to the way the Community Preservation Act works. The amendment passed 31 to 5.
"Now we are creating a mechanism if communities so choose to use the same method for water infrastructure," Sen. Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport), who filed the amendment, said referring to the CPA.
Communities that vote in favor of adopting the water surcharge would be allowed to assess a fee on new uses for water. It would apply to new residential and commercial development, according to Long, from the Nature Conservancy. The money would be deposited in a water infrastructure fund.
"That fund could be used to find ways to replace water that has been taken out of the system. It could be used for conservation, fixing leaky pipes, making infrastructure repairs, anything that helps save water and also mitigate the extraction of water," Long said.
Sen. Michael Moore, a Democrat from Millbury, was successful in getting an amendment passed, by two votes, that would allow communities that are too far away to join the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority to be eligible for a one-to-one match for infrastructure needs.
Moore said it would create parity for non-MWRA communities to have access to state aid that is dedicated to the MWRA. Eldridge spoke against the amendment, which passed 19 to 17.
"Given the fact that we don't have new revenue in this bill, the question is where would the money come from?" Eldridge said after the session.
Communities outside the MWRA district feel there is too much attention directed to the MWRA, Eldridge said.
"I think that vote reflected that we do need to provide more investments in infrastructure in every city and town," he said.
Sen. Bruce Tarr proposed an amendment, which passed unanimously, that creates a municipal impact fee. Tarr said there needed to be some emphasis on water conservation in the legislation. The amendment incentivizes conservation by offering individual ratepayers a fee reduction of up to 25 percent if they install any low flow fixtures or water efficient appliances in their home.