Townsend: Democrats not supporting clean water bill strongly enough

DOVER — Several lawmakers aired frustrations Thursday over what they see as a lack of investment in clean water by state officials. During a budget hearing involving top environmental officials, a few members of the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement questioned the executive branch’s lack of support for a bill that would create a new fee to clean up the state’s waterways.

Noting water quality is poor in many parts of the state, as evidenced by the recent episodes of tainted water in Sussex County, Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, asked Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin when the state would make serious investments in combating flooding and polluted water.

“My understanding has been that this is a very serious problem,” Sen. Townsend said. “Short-term, long-term, this is a big problem.”

House Bill 270 would establish 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.

But despite characterizations from supporters that “bold change” is desperately needed to make waterways healthy again, the measure was tabled in committee in March, and with just 13 regularly scheduled legislative days left, its chances of passage are nil.

Mr. Garvin told the committee Thursday he supports the intent but discussions on a water fee have “to be done in that larger context” of budget reform, something the administration of Gov. John Carney has been seriously focused on.

Sen. Townsend, who has been the driving force behind the push for raising money for water projects, expounded on his thoughts Friday, saying he is disappointed more has not been done.

“I hope we can all take a different approach in 2019, not to only look at it just as the numbers but to have really powerful conversations about values and priorities,” he said.

Sen. Townsend chose his words carefully, tempering any criticism of the executive branch by noting he understands Gov. Carney’s focus on changing the state’s budgeting process and believes the governor is willing to consider big changes, but he still issued criticisms of some of his fellow Democrats.

Many Democratic officials have shied away from the issue of clean water, he said, arguing they could garner strong public support for a fee by emphasizing how sorely it is needed.

According to a 2015 Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control 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.

According to state officials, more than half a billion dollars is needed for water investments over the next five years.

In trumpeting Gov. Carney’s budget proposal of $6 million evenly split between two funds dedicated to water issues, as well as $4.2 million for shoreline and waterway management, Mr. Garvin noted the state “should not have third world situations with people struggling with clean water.”

Sen. Townsend said Friday he appreciates that investment but more is needed.

In response to a question in the committee hearing from Sen. Townsend — who asked for an answer “as apocalyptic as possible” — about a failure to establish more funding, Water Infrastructure Advisory Council chair Jeffrey Bross agreed the current level is not sufficient. Committee co-chair Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, chimed in to note water issues will probably remain out of the spotlight until Delaware’s water is brown, prompting Mr. Bross to concur.

“Until the problem manifests itself, it’s out of sight and out of mind,” he said.

Everyone agrees clean water is important. The question is whether the bill seriously addresses the problem and whether the state needs to create a new fee on taxpayers.

Some people have objected on the grounds the measure would let large companies responsible for some of the pollution off the hook, while lawmakers of both parties have argued it would unnecessarily create new layers of bureaucracy.

But supporters believe the state cannot afford to wait.

Describing Delaware as at a “crossroads,” Sen. Townsend said Friday legislators must “do a better job of focusing on the public sector services that help create a stable environment for the private sector success.”

“I can’t think of much more important than clean water or clean drinking water,” Rep. Mike Mulrooney, D-Wilmington Manor, said in committee Thursday.

Asked if the governor would consider a variant of House Bill 270 next year, a spokesman for Gov. Carney said in a text message the administration is focused on the current year’s budget.

Sen. Townsend, who said he has not talked about the idea with the governor much this year, didn’t mince words when speaking about the proposal’s future.

“I think 2019 is the key year. If we can’t get this done in 2019, then I don’t think we can honestly say that we’re committed to clean water,” he said.

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