‘Water warriors’ in Del. demand funding for clean water projects

About 80 “water warriors” lobbied lawmakers at Legislative Hall in Dover in support of HB 200 that would earmark funding every year to pay for projects that improve water quality in Delaware. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

About 80 “water warriors” lobbied lawmakers at Legislative Hall in Dover in support of HB 200 that would earmark funding every year to pay for projects that improve water quality in Delaware. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Over the last year and a half, Delaware’s Office of Drinking Water has issued 11 notices for various locations, warning people to beware of contaminants in their water, especially water being consumed by babies younger than 6 months old.

The problem was especially bad in the southern Delaware town of Blades, where the three municipal wells tested positive for perfluorinated compounds in early 2018 at a rate above the human health-advisory level. Long-term exposure to the chemicals, found in products including Teflon pans, can affect pregnant women and infants, cause cancer, and alter the liver and immune system.

In nearby Ellendale, residents endured years of smelly, discolored water from private wells before finally approving a public water system in a referendum vote last year.

“I’m tired of delivering bottled water to folks in Ellendale, or Blades,” said Colin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Clean water is a basic human right. You can’t do anything without basic clean water.”

O’Mara led the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control under then-Gov. Jack Markell and was a big part of the administration’s 2014 push for a fee to fund clean water improvements. That effort failed to gain traction in the General Assembly. Several similar attempts since then have also failed.

State Sen. Bryan Townsend sponsored one of those efforts to secure funding for clean water projects. “We have all the technology we need to clean our waterways, we just don’t have the money. And we’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing since then,” he said. He’s hopeful this year’s effort, led by House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst and Senate President Pro Tem David McBride, will have better luck.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of projects that people in our state are waiting on. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road any longer,” Longhurst said.

Her plan would fund improvements to water resources by earmarking $10 million in personal income tax revenue, $5 million of gross receipts tax revenue, $5 million in realty transfer tax revenue, and $5 million from corporate income tax revenue. That would reduce money into Delaware’s general fund by about $25 million annually over the next three years.

“We can spend trillions of dollars on state-of-the-art schools, health care and roads, but none of it will matter if we don’t address the failing water-infrastructure system,” Longhurst said. “We are past the point of just talking about it. We have to be bold. We have to make clean water and strong infrastructure a priority. If we ignore this problem, they will only continue to get worse.”

The bill would pay for items like flood mitigation and state testing for nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals that can contaminate water supplies. The measure would create a Clean Water Trust that would compile a list of priority projects and be able to issue bonds and pursue matching grants to provide further funding.

About 80 supporters gathered outside Legislative Hall in Dover Wednesday morning to urge lawmakers to approve the bill. For the fifth year in a row, the group’s members donned shirts labeling themselves “water warriors” as they were led by the Delaware Nature Society’s Brenna Goggin.

“In politics, we always know the need. We have been very fortunate that we have had leaders show up and take the next step, not just identify the need, but take actually action to get that need addressed,” Goggin said. “We just need more of them … to say, ‘You know what, I support clean water. I’ve got clean water issues in my district, and my constituents deserve better.’ ”

Longhurst has more than 30 sponsors on the bill that was approved Wednesday afternoon by the House Natural Resources Committee in a 5-2 vote.

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