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Tell the Story, and Shape the Rules of the Water Game

by Dan Kidera, Principal at OB-C Group, a bipartisan boutique lobbying firm in Washington, DC. Dan will be writing a quarterly column for Imagine H2O on water issues on Capitol Hill. Here, he assesses recent progress on federal support for water infrastructure, and advice for entrepreneurs who think that federal policy is outside their sphere of influence. As we have discussed elsewhere this year, we need to get better at telling the water story. Enjoy…

With everything happening in Washington in the past year and a half, it is easy to miss the good news that has come with regard to water infrastructure. In March, Congress passed a $1.3 trillion dollar omnibus appropriations bill, which included big boosts in funding for programs that are essential to our water infrastructure.

The bill appropriated $1.694 billion for the State Water Revolving Fund and $1.163 billion for the Clean Water Revolving Fund. This represented a $300 million dollar boost in funding for each program. The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) received $63 million, more than double the amount allocated in 2017.

Congress believes the additional funding for WIFIA could generate $6 billion in new investment for water infrastructure projects nationwide. In addition, language was included requiring states to use no less than 10% of a given revolving fund for green infrastructure including water and/or energy efficiency improvements, resolving lead in drinking water, or other environmental innovative activities.

The federal government is making a significant investment in water infrastructure for the next few years. This investment should boost water infrastructure projects and investment at the state and local level, as well as through private investment.

In addition to appropriations, there is also potential legislation that will impact water infrastructure. Next week, House and Senate committees will mark up the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). WRDA primarily deals with Army Corp of Engineer programs but it is an opportunity for Congress to address other areas of water policy. There is a lot of optimism H.R.3387, the Drinking Water Systems Improvement Act, will be included with WRDA by the time it reaches the House floor. In addition to WRDA, Congress will also need to reauthorize the federal flood insurance program that is set to expire July 31st.

Value in Government Affairs

It is important for startups to pay close attention to what’s happening in Washington even if you don’t think you have the time or resources to do it. There is a lot of money being spent to address major challenges in our water infrastructure and this creates opportunities for efficient, innovative companies to offer solutions to pressing public policy challenges.

As entrepreneurs, view government affairs through the lens of the challenges that your ideas solve. Startups are great at identifying problems and offering new solutions. While government is generally supposed to function the same way, identifying and solving problems, the combination of its sheer size and our partisan politics often prevent solutions from materializing. This does not need to be the case. All water stakeholders must get better at highlighting the benefits from taking action on water.

After Flint and lead crises in other cities, there is a renewed focus on water infrastructure. The problem is that it’s still not a sexy issue. Water is not a field most politicians have any real knowledge, experience, or background in so they do not know how to tackle our current challenges. This creates an opportunity for entrepreneurs to educate policymakers about new technologies they do not know exist, new solutions that have never been tried, and tell a story about how addressing water is also addressing health, security, and economic opportunity.

A compelling story will generate buy-in about water infrastructure. This means more investment and more interest in emerging technologies. That means real solutions to problems that help hundreds of millions of people. The ultimate goal of government is to help people. It can be a tremendous instrument of good. It just needs to be harnessed with the right story to care about the right issues, like water.