By Julie Shaw
Summary: Already this year, public servants in the nation’s capitol have addressed some issues facing customers who rely on private wells as their major source of water. While municipalities often take center stage, both the NGWA and its individual members have been lobbying for attention to be given other viable sources of water. The following gives a thumbnail sketch of related events of the past year.
Private water wells provide safe, affordable household drinking water, but Americans are under increasing pressure to get their water from public systems.
In many areas of the country, state laws or local ordinances require connection to a public water system if such a connection is available. Private well owners also may face financial pressures due to a lack of financing programs available for installation or improvement of household well systems. Two bills currently before Congress and endorsed by the National Ground Water Association (NGWA) and the Water Quality Association (WQA) would address these issues and aid U.S. consumers who want to ensure they have the option of using a private water well as their chief source of household water.
2001 bill for wells
The Affordable Drinking Water Act of 2001, also known as H.R. 626 in the House of Representatives and S. 716 in the Senate, was introduced by Congressman John Boehner (R-OH) in February, and by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) in April. The bill would authorize a program of loans to low- to moderate-income Americans to help them install, refurbish or service their individually owned household well systems, including the installation of treatment devices. Through a public-private partnership, the federal government and non-profit entities would facilitate financing for homeowners who otherwise would have no financial assistance available to install or maintain their private wells. This program would also allow these families the opportunity to repay the loans on a schedule similar to what other utilities offer their customers.
“These bills are intended to extend fairness and choice to all taxpayers,” said Kevin McCray, executive director of NGWA, a not-for-profit organization whose 16,500 members include drilling contractors, equipment manufacturers and suppliers, groundwater scientists, engineers, geologists and environmental professionals.
The proposed legislation is a targeted, loan-only approach under which each individual household must meet income eligibility levels of not more than 100 percent of the statewide, median, non-metropolitan household income level.
“There are thousands of low to moderate income individuals who cannot meet the credit and/or underwriting guidelines within our program and, therefore, they are denied a very vital resource,” said B.G. Wylie, general manager of Water Financial USA, of Austin, Texas. Wylie, who said Water Financial is “the only nationwide source of water well and septic system financing,” has expressed his organization’s support for the Affordable Drinking Water Act. He noted in a Feb. 15 letter to Rep. Boehner, “While your recently introduced bill (H.R. 626) is somewhat competitive with our program, we nevertheless wholeheartedly support it … We think there is room and a need for our program and a government-assisted program.”
Meeting the needs
In servicing the household water well segment of the market, groundwater industry members sometimes personally extend financing to elderly or disadvantaged customers. The average water well contracting firm, however, is a small, family-owned business with an average of five employees. Plus, many have expressed to NGWA their concern over limited means of assistance that are inadequate in addressing the needs of customers.
“With proper installation and maintenance of their systems, private water well owners have exceedingly safe and reliable water supplies,” said Len Assante, vice president of Plainfield Well Drilling Company, of Martinsville, N.J., and chairman of NGWA’s Rural Water District Subcommittee. “Many rural private water well customers need only the type of financing commonly available to other utility customers to ensure that they can have an affordable system delivering water of the highest quality.”
To date, nine representatives have signed on as cosponsors of H.R. 626—Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), Sam Graves (R-MS), John McHugh (R-NY), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Todd Platts (R-PA), Richard Pombo (R-CA), Bob Stump (R-AZ), and Fred Upton (R-MI).
The people’s choice
Congressman Pombo also has introduced H.R. 937, a bill that would help ensure that consumers have a choice in drinking water sources. The legislation would prohibit the use of federal funds by any program that restricts the use of privately owned water sources. The bill would assist private well owners in localities across the country who are being required to connect to public water supply systems even when a safe household water source is already available.
By supporting projects requiring this kind of connection, the federal government may impose unnecessary burdens on property owners, rural businesses and farms, in addition to limiting consumers’ choice in drinking water sources.
“People should be able to choose water delivery from private well systems if they have a safe, viable source and they feel it’s their best option,” said Assante.
Several cosponsors have also signed on to H.R. 937. They are J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), Mark Kennedy (R-MN), Donald Manzullo (R-IL), C.L. “Butch” Otter (R-ID), Platts, Stump and John Sununu (R-N.H.).
Boarding the bandwagon
“The chances of Congress approving legislation increase when members see that their peers from both sides of the aisle support the bill as a co-sponsor,” McCray says. “Professionals who operate businesses heavily focused on the individual household water well market can only help themselves by urging, with sincerity and urgency, their elected representatives to support these bills.”
The most recent water use report from the U.S. Geological Survey shows 42.4 million people in the United States are on self-supplied water systems. A national survey sponsored by NGWA shows that more than 80 percent of well owners prefer their individual household water well systems to other drinking water delivery options. Only 8.3 percent said they would rather have their drinking water from a water utility company.
“These bills ensure that consumer choice is appropriately supported and respected,” said McCray.
A recent development offers new cause for optimism among the supporters of H.R. 626. The bill’s language has been incorporated into Section 614 of “The Agricultural Act of 2001,” proposed by the House Agriculture Committee. The bill includes provisions on a wide range of topics, including farm commodity programs, conservation, trade, research and rural development. The farm bill will go next to the full House for consideration, and will be reconciled with a Senate farm bill before going to the president for consideration, The process is expected to take several months.
About the author
Julie Shaw is the marketing and public affairs manager for the National Ground Water Association. For more information on these bills, sample letters of support and links to your congressional representatives, please call NGWA at (800) 551-7379 or visit its website: http://www.ngwa.org/position/legis.html.