By Michael Norton and Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — The Senate on Tuesday set the stage to debate legislation authorizing a new local option fee and increasing a cap on contract assistance by $50 million to help chip away at water system infrastructure projects that Massachusetts cities and towns currently can’t afford to advance.
The Senate will debate a Senate Ways and Means version of the bill (S 2016) on Thursday, with senators instructed to file amendments by 3 p.m. Wednesday. While a special commission identified $1 billion a year in unmet water infrastructure needs, the bill would authorize enough new funding to tackle only a small portion of that workload.
The bill increases a contract assistance ceiling from $88 million a year to $138 million per year and requires the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust – the new name recommended for the Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust – to commit 80 percent of that limit and report to the Legislature in any year that the threshold is not met.
Senate President Therese Murray, who has several communities in her district facing wastewater infrastructure challenges, has helped advance the bill this year by flagging it as a priority in agenda-setting remarks.
According to a summary of the Senate bill, it would create a new state approval process for the discharge of municipally treated wastewater into ocean sanctuaries. To do so, the bill amends the Ocean Sanctuaries Act, making an alternative wastewater disposal option available to towns near coastal embayments.
Another section of the bill requires the state to adopt rules requiring interruption devices on newly installed or renovated irrigation systems, with an exemption provided for systems on agricultural properties.
To help offset environmental impacts caused by developments requiring new or increased water and sewer system withdrawals and usage, the bill authorizes cities and towns to collect impact fees. The bill calls for fees to be assessed in a “fair and equitable manner” and allows separate fees for residential and commercial usage. Fees charged to mitigate impacts of onsite disposal systems may be based on expected costs to pump and maintain the systems.
The bill authorizes low-interest loans for water infrastructure projects and establishes criteria for the loan process. It requires the trust to create a sliding scale interest rate, from 0 to 2 percent on loans for qualifying projects.
The legislation also requires the Department of Environmental Protection to promulgate regulations for additional financial assistance, including principal forgiveness. The bill appropriates $1.5 million to the Department of Environmental Protection for planning or technical assistance grants to develop water pollution abatement plans, integrated water asset management plans, or to identify “green” infrastructure opportunities.
Critics of the bill say it falls far short of addressing billions of dollars of unmet system maintenance and improvement needs statewide. Citing affordability concerns, the Senate Bonding Committee stripped $450 million in water infrastructure financing that had been recommended by the Joint Committee on the Environment.
The legislation also requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to evaluate ways to minimize paperwork required in connection with the state’s septic system regulations, known as Title V.