Carney proposes $50 million for clean water

Gov. John Carney speaks during announcement of Clean Water Investment at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Gov. John Carney gave a tease of next week’s budget recommendations Tuesday, announcing a plan to commit $50 million to fund clean water projects for the fiscal year starting July 1.

To expend that money, he’s backing legislation filed by House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, that would create the Clean Water Trust. Funded by regular state revenues shifted to the capital bond bill, the trust and corresponding oversight body would “ensure the greatest environmental return on investment through the management and coordination of financial resources available to the State for drinking water, wastewater, drainage and other eligible clean water projects,” the bill says.

“It is on us to fight for our environment and the powerful infrastructure needed to support it, so we all can live in a world where clean drinking water and vibrant waterways are not luxuries,” Rep. Longhurst said at a news conference announcing the investment. “As a coastal, low-lying state, we see the urgency for this action.”

The bill would form a seven-member council composed of the secretaries of the departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, Health and Social Services, Finance, Agriculture and Transportation, as well as the two co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Capital Improvement. Those seven would be charged with producing an annual report on the Clean Water Trust, as well as a strategic plan containing a list of goals, projects ranked in terms of importance and recommendations to help low-income and other oft-ignored communities.

According to the governor, the $50 million could leverage another $30 million in federal funding. The current capital budget contains $20 million for two existing funds for water projects.

Exactly what that money could be spent on will be determined in the future, but projects could include planting more cover crops to prevent erosion and subsequent runoff, treating pollutants or upgrading storm drains.

There is special emphasis on using the funding for certain populations that might otherwise be passed over.

“Part of the impetus around this almost 30 years ago and today was difficult-to-serve communities,” Gov. Carney said. “I mentioned it briefly with respect to the manufactured home community that’s remote, in a rural area, they have maybe a community septic or community water, but it’s those residents who don’t have the wherewithal, they’re not connected to a city system or a town system, that are much more difficult and much more expensive, and they’ve been a little bit out of reach of our recent program because our recent program is mostly loan-based.”

Although officials spoke optimistically about the impact the state’s investment can have, that sum would only put a dent in the needs: A prior water bill states more than $500 million is needed to tackle drinking water, stormwater and wastewater issues over the next five years. Removing toxic pollutants from waterways throughout the state would by itself cost at least $75 million, that measure notes.

Nonetheless, speakers Tuesday painted the announcement as a big step forward, with President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-New Castle, describing himself as having trouble believing the size of the investment.

This is far from the first time the issue has been highlighted by state officials, who describe the need as tremendous.

The bill refers to the state’s waterways as “among Delaware’s most basic and valuable resources,” having a major impact on its economy and residents’ health. Per a 2015 DNREC report, however, 377 bodies of water — more than 90 percent of the state’s waterways — fall short of water quality standards.

An agency spokesman did not respond to a request for information Tuesday about the number of currently impaired bodies of water.

Flooding has been an issue throughout the state, as has polluted water: Within the past few years, residents of Blades and Ellendale have been temporarily instructed not to drink from their local water systems due to nitrates and other pollutants.

Since 2007, Delawareans have been instructed to eat no more than one fish caught in-state per week due to health concerns.

“Many of the contaminants that prompt fish advisories in Delaware are ‘legacy pollutants’ — chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the banned insecticide DDT, and dioxins and furans that were released into waterways in significant quantities in the past,” reads a 2018 advisory from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “These legacy pollutants are slow to break down in the environment and can accumulate in fish and in bottom sediments of lakes, streams and estuaries.”

Gov. Carney noted reports on the problems facing the state’s waterways date back to at least the early 1990s, clear evidence of a problem acknowledged by most.

But recent efforts to create permanent funding sources were unsuccessful, in large part because they would have created new taxes.

In 2014, then Gov. Jack Markell proposed a fee on homes and businesses to be collected along with county property taxes. The exact amount would vary based on property size, with the average single-family household living on half an acre of land paying only $45 a year, he said at that time.

The governor estimated it could bring in more than $30 million from Delaware residents and another $90 million or so from the federal government, leading to more than 1,000 new jobs. But despite his urging, the initiative met with opposition even from many Democrats, and it sank like a stone.

It did inspire some others, however, and lawmakers in 2017 created a task force to examine the issue. The end result from the meetings was legislation establishing a dedicated fund filled by new fees from tax returns and business licenses.

Championed by Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, the effort was painted by supporters as a way to consistently bring in funding for a hugely important issue.

“Whether it’s water quality or whether it’s flooding, we just have got to update our infrastructure. Our economy depends on it. In many cases, our health depends on it,” Sen. Townsend said in 2018.

Yet that attempt also failed, with the governor opposing it due to a desire to avoid changing tax policy piecemeal.

Last year, Rep. Longhurst filed a bill that would have directed at least $25 million from personal income, gross receipts, realty transfer and corporate income taxes. The measure announced Tuesday is a simplified version of that bill, chiefly without the annual transfer of tax collections.

“Sometimes it is a marathon, not a sprint,” Rep. Longhurst said, prompting the governor to chime in, “It’s been a marathon.”