Delaware officials propose $50 million investment for clean water needs
Contaminated drinking water in Sussex County.
Failing wastewater systems in Kent County.
Flooded streets in South Wilmington.
Those are just a few examples of the water issues faced by Delaware residents, some caused by natural influences, improper management, a lack of funding, or a combination.
After years of trying to pass legislation to create a steady funding stream to start chipping away at old, failing infrastructure and persistent pollution problems, Delaware politicians say they have finally found a way to get started.
It’s called the Clean Water for Delaware Act, and Gov. John Carney is ready to pour $50 million into a trust fund to get it rolling in the upcoming fiscal year.
“From the Brandywine Creek to the Inland Bays, we have special natural places in our state. Water is Delaware’s most basic and valuable resource, and we should protect that resource for future generations,” Carney said in a press release Tuesday.
“And we need to make sure that all Delaware families have access to clean drinking water. Delawareans deserve clean water. It’s as simple as that.”
The bill, which needs to be approved by the Legislature, aims to address drinking water, wastewater and drainage needs. That could include funding millions of dollars' worth of infrastructure-related projects or smaller-scale projects for individual communities, officials say.
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The $50 million would come from surplus funds this year, officials said. That funding will be supported by existing state funds for drinking water and wastewater projects, as well a federal funding, for a total of more than $100 million in initial investment, officials said.
"Clean water is not a privilege. It's a human right," said House Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, who sponsored the bill.
She noted that, if approved, legislators would "still have to find a continued revenue resource."
Previous incarnations of the bill and studies have suggested at least $500 million in water and wastewater projects are needed in the next five years. The bill requires the development of an annual “strategic planning process” and an oversight committee, officials said.
Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin pointed to potential projects, like rehabilitation of the Delaware City wastewater treatment plant and sewer expansions in Kent County.
He also noted the severe drainage and flooding issues in the Sussex County community of Oak Orchard, which could benefit.
It also makes it easier for low-income, under served communities to access the funding. Previously, neighborhoods or small communities that suffered from issues like failing septic systems, which can pollute nearby drinking water wells, may not have had the resources to apply for state or federal grants or loans.
“For 30 years, everybody’s been saying we have to figure out how to address these communities,” Garvin said. “This bill is going to underscore that effort."
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In southern Delaware, natural geology and groundwater systems are such that it is easy for pollutants to reach the water table, which feeds public and private wells for drinking water. For communities with no local government and no centralized water or sewer systems, the burden of dealing with contaminants lies with the well owner.
“No community in Delaware should live in fear of polluted water and failing wastewater systems,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. David McBride, D-Hawk's Nest. “Yet across our great state, hundreds of our residents must be leery of the water they drink and the fish they catch. … Our vulnerable communities simply cannot wait any longer.”
The Clean Water for Delaware Act is the latest version of a years-long effort to address pollution, flooding and infrastructure problems.
The idea for clean water funding was previously proposed by former Gov. Jack Markell and then Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark. Both proposals faced backlash over their taxpayer-backed funding mechanisms.
This time, the funds will come from a trust.
Some environmentalists raised concerns during a committee hearing on Townsend's bill in 2018 about who would be eligible for the funding, worrying that polluters could use taxpayer money to clean up water problems they created.
For example, a southern Delaware chicken plant applied for and was approved for about $11 million in low-interest, taxpayer-backed loans for wastewater upgrades and new projects several years ago. The company ultimately abandoned half of those plans, after being hit with environmental violations from the state, and directed about $5 million of it toward another private company for an impact fee.
Longhurst said that private companies, as well as municipalities and government agencies, could potentially apply for the new funding.
The proposed clean water trust would be overseen by a committee of seven appointees, who will oversee the current Water Infrastructure Advisory Council that currently reviews needed water and wastewater projects, like the funding that the previously mentioned southern Delaware chicken plant received and then redirected.
Contact environmental reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.