From The Editor | January 29, 2018

Guiding Water And Wastewater Treatment Under The New EPA

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

Nearly a year since Scott Pruitt was confirmed as the administrator of the U.S. EPA, many of the tenets that will continue to guide his tenure have been made clear.

This EPA has been defined by reductions — in press availability, in actual staff, and in regulations that are meant to safeguard environmental quality by restricting the actions of industrial operations.

But for the individual water systems around the country that look to the EPA for regulatory guidance as well as opportunities for federal funding, the changes may be a mixed blessing and certainly one that deserves close attention.

Loosening The Reins

For many systems — particularly smaller water and wastewater treatment operations in rural parts of the country — a reduction in federal red tape and regulatory overreach is a welcome change in relations with the EPA.

Pruitt’s EPA has voiced a dedication to principles that would shift the agency into a supportive role for local syndicates, rather than one that seeks to control everything that they do. One of these core principals has been described as “cooperative federalism,” a philosophy that would see the EPA enter a more accommodating relationship with local municipalities. This change seems more than welcome by small, suburban treatment plants.

“The reason local governments support cooperative federalism is because regulations that exceed federal authority, while well-intentioned, may have an adverse effect on public health,” said Mike Keegan, a legislative and regulatory spokesperson for the National Rural Water Association (NRWA), the country’s largest utility membership organization. “Such regulations include mandates that local communities and consumers pay the cost of federal compliance that they don’t believe is resulting in the most beneficial public health and environmental policy. This dynamic is especially acute and problematic on economically-disadvantaged populations.”

Of course, many environmentalists would argue that rolling back drinking water and wastewater regulations can only have a negative impact on the planet and public health. But those charged with carrying out water quality regulations seem to believe that they are in the best position to determine what those safeguards should look like.

“Local governments believe that the best plan for protecting water resources is the one that is developed by the local officials who better understand their particular vulnerabilities,” Keegan said.

This enthusiasm for Pruitt’s philosophy toward federal regulations appears to reach state-level agencies, which would also like to take a bigger role in determining water and wastewater treatment action in their own communities.

“We hope that as Administrator Pruitt gets settled, cooperative federalism will take hold and the U.S. EPA will allow the states to be the boots on the ground implementers and enforcers of environmental laws, which is what we have received federal delegation to do,” said Heidi Griesmer, the deputy director for communication at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “The U.S. EPA should check in with the states to ensure the state is doing the right thing, but the U.S. EPA should not take federal action in a state without coordinating with the state.”

For its part, the EPA emphasized its commitment to the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts, the two primary federal laws governing water pollution, but seemed to allude to its commitment toward empowering individual states with their own water quality.

“While states have the authority to enforce most parts of the Clean Water Act, EPA continues to be committed to working closely with states in order to ensure national consistency so communities across the United States have clean and safe water,” an EPA spokesperson told Water Online.

Where Will Funding Go?

Though many state- and local-level treatment regulators and operators welcome a less-invasive EPA, a lack of oversight from the federal level may mean a downturn in assistance and funding as well.

The agency’s budget fell by about $80 million in the fiscal year of 2017 compared to the previous year and a more conservative administration will almost certainly focus on continued reductions in the future.

With a smaller budget and less pressure around regulations governing water quality, it’s likely that funding toward new treatment technologies, education, and enforcement efforts will diminish. In one example, the Trump administration is seeking to remove a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant program for sanitary sewage disposal and stormwater drainage.

“Unfortunately, the president’s fiscal year 2018 ‘American First’ budget included a proposal for Congress to eliminate the USDA’s Water & Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program,” said Keegan. “This continues to be an existential challenge for NRWA and we remain vigilant in defense of the USDA water initiatives in the next budget cycle.”

If the Pruitt-led EPA is marked with a significant dip in the funding it allocates to local water and wastewater quality projects, this is another area where states may be best served by taking matters into their own hands. For 2018, Ohio EPA has received project nominations totaling $1.7 billion for its Water Pollution Control Loan Fund, which receives about 20 percent of its funds from the federal government. If this investment were to diminish, however, Ohio EPA is confident that it can continue to assist water quality efforts across the state.

“While these federal contributions are significant, and we do not want to see them diminish, they are not the largest source of money for the funds we loan out in state revolving funds,” Griesmer said.

One area where there is an obvious need for federal funding is that of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, which will require an estimated $655 billion nationwide investment over the next 10 years. With a declared focus on infrastructure investment from President Trump, and a leaked draft indicating that action is forthcoming, this seems like an area where the EPA will want to increase funding for local projects.

Since 1987, the EPA has provided more that $161 billion in low-interest loans to water infrastructure projects around the country through its Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, per the agency. The Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act received $25 million in funding in fiscal year 2017, including $8 million in an appropriations act signed by Donald Trump.

Many local water and wastewater systems are hoping that any expanded federal infrastructure funding is allocated under the same principles that are guiding Pruitt’s regulatory decision-making: a focus on individual municipalities that gives them the tools to do what’s best for them.

“President Trump has made improving the country’s infrastructure, including water and wastewater, a priority. We are grateful for that,” said Keegan. “If rural and small town America is not specifically targeted in the legislation that would authorize and fund new water infrastructure initiatives, the funding will bypass rural America and be absorbed by large metropolitan water developments.”

The New Outlook

For those paying attention to the work of the EPA, the change in direction under Pruitt has been stark. The agency is markedly less transparent and less interested in marketing its efforts, if any, to protect the environment. A dramatic cutback in staff will naturally lead to an overall reduction in the agency’s presence.

And this shift is not unwelcomed, it may even be heralded, by many of those on the frontlines of water and wastewater treatment. Many appear eager to fill real or perceived gaps in federal oversight by taking charge of their own water and wastewater concerns. Hopefully, it will be a dynamic that best serves our country’s water.

Image credit: "Environmental Protection Agency," Glenn Pope, 2013, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: