Environment & Energy

INSIGHT: Integrated Planning for Local Clean Water Agencies a Valuable Bipartisan Initiative

Feb. 25, 2020, 9:00 AM

The Trump administration’s recent changes to environmental regulations have been met with broad criticism from a variety of corners, leading some to question whether there is still room for bipartisan environmental priorities.

In the midst of this negative media attention is an underreported example of bipartisan cooperation: the Environmental Protection Agency’s integrated planning initiative.

The initiative was developed and initiated under the Obama administration, and it is being implemented in a similar fashion by the Trump administration. Integrated planning allows local public clean water agencies to prioritize and sequence an array of complex clean water requirements and infrastructure upgrades to ensure full compliance and maximize the benefit for the communities and ratepayers they serve.

The EPA’s integrated planning framework was incorporated into the Clean Water Act (CWA) by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in December 2018 and signed by President Trump in January 2019. This marked the most significant bipartisan CWA amendment in over a decade.

Important Tool for Cities

Integrated planning is intended to provide a tool for cities seeking to address a growing array of increasingly costly federal and state CWA requirements, including combined sewer overflow (CSO) control requirements. CSOs are designed to overflow and discharge highly diluted effluent during large rainstorms into local waterbodies to prevent sewage backups in people’s homes and to mitigate potential flooding.

The EPA’s initial actions to reduce the environmental and public health impacts of CSOs were, in many cases, to put CSO communities under strict federal enforcement actions called consent decrees. These consent decrees, often lasting 20 years or more, outline very specific investments CSO communities must make to reduce CSO discharges. The costs of these investments were often enormous, in some cases costing individual cities billions of dollars. The EPA’s own estimate was that the CSO policy would cost municipalities $44.7 billion in 1996 dollars.

Communities are now locked into binding decrees that offer little opportunity to find more innovative, less costly CSO control measures, even as our management expertise, knowledge-base, and technological capabilities and options progress. Now, with the benefit of decades of CSO work and data, communities have identified more efficient, often cheaper ways to reduce CSO discharges.

The EPA’s integrated planning framework allows these communities to prioritize, through collaboration with regulators, the public, and other stakeholders, their clean water investments by reopening and modifying their consent decrees to achieve better environmental protection outcomes at less cost to the ratepayer.

This is even more critical considering the growing challenges low-income ratepayers now face since CSO consent decrees were first introduced and with water and wastewater service rates rising nationwide. It is now more important than ever that clean water agencies ensure their ratepayers are getting the best environmental results for their investment.

Misleading Narrative

The narrative being pushed that integrated planning, modifying consent decrees, and generally rethinking how best to comply with regulatory requirements is somehow a partisan initiative shows little regard for the truth, for the Herculean efforts of our clean water agencies across the country, and for the informed complexity rather than partisan soundbites these issues and our public deserve.

Public clean water agencies must work with their regulators regardless of political stripe to balance two priorities: ensuring full compliance with water quality requirements while guaranteeing the ratepayers’ investment in them is maximized. This delicate balance was recognized nearly unanimously by Democratic and Republican presidents, House members, and Senators in the form of integrated planning.

To cast the concerns of thousands of hard working public clean water agency employees, and the needs of the communities they serve, as anything but conscientiously attempting to address a growing number of environmental, regulatory, budgetary, and political challenges, shows, at best, a willful withholding of the facts or, at worst, a desire to cast these hardworking individuals at the front lines of environmental protection in a disparaging and negative light in the selfish pursuit of clicks, page views, and digital engagement during an election year.

Simply stated, our water leaders and workforce deserve better; they deserve to be heard, their efforts and expertise respected, their point of view given a full and fair airing, and their priorities advanced with continued bipartisan support. This is particularly true given the remarkable work our public clean water utilities have done over the past 50 years to restore bodies of water once thought beyond repair to their natural beauty, to become anchor institutions in their communities, and to spearhead the use of cutting-edge technology to achieve better water quality outcomes at a more effective cost.

It is my hope that with a full understanding of the facts—and the remarkable efforts by the public clean water sector—the media, the public, and the federal government will continue to approach water as so fundamental to our lives that it must be addressed without the partisan rancor that has overtaken much of our national political discourse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Adam Krantz is CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He directs a Washington, D.C., team that advocates on behalf of the nation’s public clean water agencies on an array of regulatory, legislative, legal, and communication initiatives geared toward ensuring sustainable clean water agencies.

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