WaterWeek 2017 Part 1: PNCWA Members Report on National Policy

On March 21, 2017, Bob Baumgartner, John Beacham, Mike Ollivant of the PNCWA Government Affairs committee flew into Washington, D.C. for the annual WaterWeek Fly-In, where water representatives from all over the country gather to talk water infrastructure and funding.

This year felt different than most. Capitol Hill was abuzz with the American Health Care Act in the House and the confirmation hearings for Judge Gorsuch as a Supreme Court Justice. Closely behind was the release of the president’s “skinny” budget— a proposed budget consisting of top-level line items for federal programs but without specific details. Of interest to PNCWA was a proposed 31% cut to the EPA budget, which did not include any cut to SRF funding, and the removal of the line item for USDA Rural Development funding, which is often used to finance infrastructure projects for smaller municipalities.

In addition, a key topic of this year’s WaterWeek was support for infrastructure financing: The president proposed  $1 trillion for infrastructure—with railroads, roads, airport and other major infrastructure needs competing for funds. This year in particular, we felt our voice mattered more than usual to ensure water competes for the money committed to infrastructure financing.

WaterWeek consists of two main elements: a series of briefings with EPA and Congressional staff and allotted time to visit legislators on Capitol Hill.

First up was a briefing on the year’s priorities from senior EPA staff within the Office of Water. Jeff Lape, Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology, discussed upcoming projects including developing numeric nutrient criteria, updating the CWA compliance methods rule, and conducting a nutrient removal study. The methods rule is currently awaiting resolution given the president’s executive order requiring each new substantial rule to be accompanied by the removal of two rules. Lape shared continued work on the Dental Amalgam rule, and several analytical methods were also waiting on clarification of the presidents executive order. Lape envisioned that they will be looking at a lot of real-time sensors in the future especially for drinking water where “every tap may have a sensor to tell if the water is safe.” The POTW nutrient study would continue with outreach to determine if existing plants can be optimized for nutrient removal.

Next, John Goodin, Acting Director of the Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds, discussed his office’s priorities: updating the “Waters of the US” rule, working with USDA on a nutrient-based National Water Quality Initiative, and developing a GIS-based public portal for displaying data collected as part of water body assessments.

Andrew Sawyers, Director of the Office of Wastewater Management, opened his remarks by referring to newly installed EPA Director Pruitt’s commitment to infrastructure improvements. His priorities followed the vein of affordability—both at the utility level, with support for programs like SRF and WIFIA, and at the consumer level. Wastewater needs were estimated at exceeding $600 billion nationwide.  Sawyers noted that there is an opportunity to close the gap on infrastructure needs. Wet weather management, especially stormwater management, was identified as an area of increasing cost. Sawyers thought that the EPA believes integrated planning provides an opportunity to plan investments of the long term and to work with EPA on financing. The EPA is considering ways to improve affordability for the 12% of U.S. households that spend upwards of 4.5% of their income on water and sewer bills.

The final priorities update was from Peter Grevatt, Director of the Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water. Grevatt focused on lead—both in terms of infrastructure and the Flint crisis and with regard to the forthcoming update to the lead and copper rule. He also discussed the growing need for qualified operators once infrastructure is in place, and a desire to focus on ways to pair the efforts of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. 

A question-and-answer period followed their presentations. Someone asked about the impact of the proposed EPA budget cuts of 30%. Because the congressional budget had yet to be released—and it was uncertain how closely it would reflect the president’s proposed budget—the EPA staff were unsure of the proposed cut’s impact.

In response to a question about biosolids and perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), the EPA staff noted that there are a lot of concerns with PFCs in groundwater, but not a lot of data on the origin of the PFCs and that more research is needed.  The EPA staff confirmed that they were still working on the virus indicator bacteriophage and on the Copper Biotic Ligand model. They suggested that more data from POTWs would be helpful. Finally, the EPA staff noted that they have a taskforce working on the Executive Order for Regulatory Reform and do not know how that will play out at this time.

A series of roundtables followed the priorities updates. John attended the roundtable discussion on water reuse, hosted by Peter Grevatt. The Office of Water led of the discussion, which focused on state rules on reuse. Grevatt’s final comment was the EPA’s Office of Water is supportive of reuse in all its forms, so long as public health is protected. Currently, the EPA does not intend to develop any national policy or guidance on reuse, as many different state programs are well developed and all slightly different. The EPA does plan to release a new compendium of reuse practices later in 2017. 

After the reuse roundtable, John caught the tail end of the discussion on the nutrient removal survey. The survey is designed to understand the abilities of secondary (or equivalent) systems to reduce nutrients, but is not focused on plants specifically designed for that purpose (i.e., BNR plants). Based on public comment, the survey will not be mandatory. The EPA’s project lead, Rob Wood, requested assistance in communicating the need for data and benefits to the wastewater community. The WEF members who were present indicated that member associations, such as PNCWA, could help with that.

Bob attended the roundtable on stormwater and surface water long-term planning and green infrastructure. Chris Kloss, Municipal Branch Chief of the Water Permits Division, provided the introduction and led the discussion. Kloss discussed EPA’s general support for green infrastructure as providing methods to respond to both water quality and volume control expectations. Although Kloss acknowledged concerns from many representatives from multiple states, he was not able to provide a lot of clarity on how current issues would be resolved, including cost for stormwater controls, relating TMDLs to stormwater, difficulty with retrofits, and the apparent disconnect between tighter regulatory controls being antagonistic to efforts to implement less predictable but more desirable green infrastructure and low-impact development approaches. Kloss noted that the EPA is continues to work with other federal agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop common goals and expectations. Kloss noted that there are several examples of effective and innovative approaches to approaching stormwater, and that integrated planning may provide a means for prioritizing actions.

We next convened for a panel of staff from various congressional committees working on infrastructure matters. Given the timing of the visit, it was unsurprising that most sessions focused on funding. Staff from the Appropriations Committee noticed the priorities expressed in the president’s draft budget: a significant increase to defense spending and a corresponding decrease to other discretionary programs. The overall budget for FY18 will also be a smaller value than FY17 due to the expiration of a congressional agreement on a temporary increase. For now, the Appropriations Committee is largely focused on developing a continuing resolution to fund the remainder of FY17, which has only been authorized through mid-April.

Recurring messages from all staffers included a focus on decreasing reactionary spending though wise investments, support for infrastructure funding, and a need for the utilities sector to make our needs known. Although discussion largely focused on funding, public-private partnerships and integrated planning were both discussed as supported tools. It was noted by staffers from both sides of the aisle that these programs are a good fit in some situations and not in others.  It was noted that taking climate change out of the federal budget means that the states will have to decide if they want to invest in climate science. Integrated planning was described as a way to manage costs and priorities, however if it appeared to be an effort by a community to avoid doing what it needs to do to comply, integrated planning will go nowhere. 

Following the meeting, there was a rally on the Hill with Senators and Representatives speaking about water issues. After that, we met with our representatives. Next week, we'll share “WaterWeek Part 2: PNCWA Members Meet with DC Representatives," which will follow John, Mike, and Bob meeting with state representatives for Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. 

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