Senator frustrated with lack of movement on clean water initiatives

DOVER — Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend continues to advocate for more funding to clean up Delaware’s waterways and combat flooding, which he describes as one of the state’s biggest problems.

With the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control appearing before the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement Thursday, the Newark Democrat grilled DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin about the condition of the state’s many rivers, ponds and other waterways.

Gov. John Carney’s budget recommendations include $15 million evenly split between shoreline and waterway management, a clean water fund in DNREC and a drinking water account in the Department of Health and Social Services, but Sen. Townsend believes that sum is far too little.

“I was sort of surprised and disheartened by the testimony,” he said after the budget hearing. “I think it’s important for experts to come in here and tell us what is needed and if they want to help guide us in terms of understanding how much their priorities or the critical priorities cost, that’s fine too, but my concern, especially with so many new members on the bond bill committee, is that if you come in and only ask for, say, $5 million and the problem is $50 million, then legislators might not understand the true scope of what we’re talking about here.

Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend

“I just don’t know if I’ve ever seen an agency be so hesitant to ask for the resources needed to fulfill their mission, so I think that we really need to figure out a long-term solution to this issue.”

The problem is more than a $50 million one, with the state estimating the total six-year cost to solve the wastewater dilemma is around $581 million. And that analysis is a few years old — an updated assessment set to be released in the fall could indicate more money is needed.

Legislation introduced in 2017 would have established new surcharges of $40 on individual tax returns and $45 on businesses licenses, using the money to fill a new fund that would spend millions annually to treat Delaware’s dirty water and flooding problems. However, the bill, the product of a task force that spent nearly a year meeting, went nowhere, much to Sen. Townsend’s chagrin.

The main champion of the water issue hopes to introduce similar legislation this year (although technically, because all revenue bills must start in the House, he cannot be the one to file it), saying he is willing to make changes to the structure so long as the problem is addressed.

Thursday, he posed several questions to Mr. Garvin about whether the state should be making a greater investment in clean water, and it was clear he was dissatisfied with the response, at one point calling the failure to take action “shameful.”

In response to a query about whether DNREC officials believe the state is in good shape to adequately tackle the problem, Mr. Garvin said the issue should be considered in context. Gov. Carney has advocated for a thorough revenue and tax package as part of broad budgetary reforms, of which a clean water fee would be only a part. Tax increases, however, have been bitterly opposed by Republicans (and some Democrats, on occasion), while other aspects of the governor’s proposal drew criticism from Gov. Carney’s own party.

As a result, clean water is left in limbo, held “hostage,” Sen. Townsend said.

Although he has generally avoided direct criticism of Gov. Carney in regard to the water issue, a careful observer does not have to read too deep between the lines to get a sense of his frustration. Sen. Townsend posed similar questions to Mr. Garvin at DNREC’s capital budget hearing last spring and has noted before the executive branch is cool to the idea.

Thursday, he described the issue as a “glaring, critical water infrastructure crisis” detrimental to all Delawareans.

Water, needless to say, is a vital part of life, with a tremendous influence on the state’s economy and health. That, supporters believe, is why urgent steps are needed.

According to a 2015 DNREC report, 377 bodies of water — more than 90 percent of the state’s waterways — fall short of water quality standards because of pollution. That pollution stems from a variety of sources, such as fertilizer washed into waterways, toxins pumped into waterways by large corporations, salt used to prepare the roads ahead of snowstorms and animal droppings left on the ground.

Flooding and drainage are major issues throughout Delaware, and several Sussex County towns last year were found to have tainted water supplies.

Many of the areas most affected by water problems, Sen. Townsend said, are “concentrated in parts of the state where legislators seem unwilling to prioritize the revenues to clean up the water for those communities.”

The heavy rainfall the state saw last year — nearly all of Delaware received above-average precipitation totals, with most of New Castle and Kent counties getting at least 50 percent more than usual — only exacerbates the problem, Water Infrastructure Advisory Council Chairman Jeffrey Bross told the committee.

After Sen. Colin Bonini, a Republican from the Dover area, asked Mr. Garvin if DNREC could use funding to produce an assessment of its deferred maintenance, Sen. Townsend questioned the point.

“If we’re not going to act on it when the entire world is calling on us to, I just don’t think it’s a good request,” he said.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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