Water Week 2017 Recap

When hundreds of water professionals descended on Washington, D.C. three weeks ago I wasn’t the only one wondering if anyone would notice us. The city was abuzz with FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, the House health  care proposal, and the president’s proposed budget which slashed support for the EPA and other critical critical agencies that we depend on for scientifically based water management. But judging by the line-up of congressional staffers, agency leaders, and U.S. senators who came by to speak with us, not to mention the dozens of elected officials and their staff who met with constituents who flew in from 41 states, as well as Puerto Rico and of course the District of Columbia itself, we got some notice! (Note: By my count we had every state EXCEPT AL, AR, DE, ME, MS, NE, ND, SD, and MT. If you were there from one of those states, please let me know and I’ll correct my numbers!) 

We came to tell Washington to “Elevate Water as a National Priority”. That can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but our that particular week was on the importance of the financial support for water infrastructure through both the Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund (SRF) and the Drinking Water SRF, as well as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act for FY2018 (WIFIA). In addition, we were asking for funding for water reuse and recycling through the Bureau of Reclamation’s Title XVI program, support for research funding, and a removal of the tax-exempt private activity bonds for water and wastewater. Apparently the pending tax reform legislation is likely to propose curtailing the tax-exempt status for municipal bonds, which many municipalities rely on to pay for water infrastructure. Because communities depend on those bonds for hospitals, roads, schools, and more, we’re in good company when asking legislators to maintain those financing vehicles.

But we didn’t come just to ask, we also came to listen. Here are a few things that I heard:

  • From elected officials on both sides of the red-blue divide and their staff  we heard repeatedly to “Ignore the President’s ‘skinny’ budget.”  Yes, that’s what they called it – his skinny budget. They have their own priorities and will build their own budget proposal. What that means to me is that they’ll set their own priorities based on what they know their constituents care about. Vocal constituents matter!
  • That said, there still seems to be significant concerns about the EPA’s structure and priorities. There was some thinking that the regional offices of EPA may be cut, and/or converted into “field offices” which would put them under more direct control of the Washington DC agency headquarters.
  • I heard from at least three people, an NGO attorney, an agency staffer, and a water utility representative, that if EPA takes a more lax approach to permit writing, or agencies are so understaffed that they don’t have time to properly review permits, they are likely to see an increased vulnerability to citizen suits. This would have a direct impact on permit holders.
  • Not surprisingly, we heard about the president’s order to rescind the Clean Water Rule, and the directive to consider the late Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s opinion on the matter. The process will be led by the Office of Water, and will be “fast-paced” (though that term was not defined). We were told that EPA would need to incorporate an “engagement process” to ensure public input.
  • Simultaneously we heard a lot about integrated planning, in the sense of the Giles-Stoner memo of 2011 which explicitly stated that green infrastructure for stormwater management should be integrated into permits and consent decrees. The goal now is to speed uptake of green infrastructure from the innovation stage to  “business as usual”. There are a few bills that could help this along. As of the time of the Fly-in it wasn’t clear which of them, if any, has a decent chance of passage this year, but the Senate Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act, introduced during Water Week 2017, seems to be making progress.
  • One of the many things that could potentially be on the chopping blocks for EPA is the Office of Research and Development, home to much of the support for climate resilience preparedness among other things. Water professionals count on EPA’s specialized expertise, which in some ways can be thought of a collaborative outsourcing for needed research. By pooling funds at the national level, states and cities have access to high-quality expertise at a discounted rate.
  • The administration is pushing public-private partnerships, also known as P3’s, as a way to fund water infrastructure. Among the fly-in participants I spoke with it seems as though no one is against the use of P3’s, as long as they aren’t expected to be able to fund all water infrastructure needs. Small communities, or cities that are struggling financially, aren’t likely to attract the attention of private investors, and could be left stranded if that is their only option.
  • The SRF is expected to be well-funded, and everyone appreciated the administration’ support for the SRF. However, if USDA funds for rural water projects are eliminated with the thought that these projects should now funnel through EPA’s SRF funding, it will effectively be a significant cut in funding that could pit communities against each other. Furthermore, some were concerned about the cultural divide that exists between rural communities, accustomed to turning to the USDA for guidance, and EPA. The optimist in me wants to think that consolidating rural and urban water needs under one roof at the EPA could be a good thing in the long run, but not without adequate funding. Starting a marriage under financial duress does not bode well for the outcome.
  • There was concern regarding the 2-for-1 rule that requires the retirement of two regulations for every new one added to the books, and that the net effect of the rule changes needs to be financially neutral.  Two pending rules received much attention: the dental amalgam rule, which just missed the deadline for acceptance under the previous administration, and the anticipated updates to the Lead & Copper Rule. These are both critically important public health measures, and at least the latter is anticipated to be very expensive, making it hard to imagine how to find a way to eliminate its financial impact. Over drinks, I was told that I should expect waivers to be the currency of the day. That allows the administration to take credit for policies that streamline regulation while allowing the passage of necessary rules that have been long in the making.
  • We also heard about legislation like the Highway Runoff Management Act, and its opportunities for re-introduction this session. Because road surfaces make such a big impact to surface water pollution, and because stormwater threatens the underpinnings of our nation’s roads and bridges, the possibilities of bringing water into transportation discussions seem pretty interesting to me.  What might happen if everyone who cared about water got behind it?

Despite everything else going on in Washington, D.C. that week, I’m sure that we made an impact. Simply showing up is a sure-fire way to get noticed.  But democracy isn’t only for those who can afford the time and money to show up in D.C., and it’s not just for one week a year. Back in our home districts, every one of us, whether we’re a water professional or not, needs to let our elected officials know how important clean water, wisely protected and soundly managed, is for us in our daily lives and livelihoods.  We need to call, write, and show up to in-district offices of our elected officials at all levels. We need to invite them on field trips, or use photos and language to take them on a virtual field trip. Have you called your senators or representatives lately? Here’s the number for the congressional switchboard: 202-224-3121. Call today and let your two senators and representative know that you care about water.

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