Urban Water Council Discusses EPA Water Priorities with Assistant Administrator Grumbles
By Rich Anderson
February 6, 2006
Albuquerque Mayor Martin J. Chavez, Chair of the Urban Water Council, convened a meeting of the Council January 25 in conjunction with The Conference of Mayors’ Winter Meeting. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Assistant Administrator Ben Grumbles addressed the Council concerning EPA’s 2006 water agenda, including a discussion on water security and sustainability.
Grumbles announced EPA’s imminent implementation of new rules under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), including the Enhanced Surface Water Treatment rule, which is intended to set new standards for control of microorganisms which have adverse human health impacts. The second rule is the disinfection byproducts rule, which sets drinking water standards for byproducts of the chlorination process used to disinfect drinking water.
Grumbles stated that EPA was days away from announcing voluntary guidance on lead in schools. EPA has released a specialized toolkit to encourage school officials and child care facilities to reduce lead in their drinking water. The "3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water at Schools and Child care Facilities Toolkit" contains materials to implement a voluntary training, testing, and telling strategy. Printed copies will be available. To view the toolkit, visit the website http://www.epa.gov/safewater/schools/guidance.html.
EPA’s Water Office is developing guidance for state and municipal government concerning affordability. EPA is required to develop guidance identifying criteria under which states and communities could petition for a waiver from implementing advanced health-based standards if they are too costly. The waiver provision is primarily intended to help small communities that would have difficulty adopting advanced treatment standards. Pleasanton (CA) Mayor Jennifer Hosterman and Alameda (CA) Mayor Beverly Johnson questioned Grumbles, pointing out that waivers should not be granted if the health of citizens is compromised. They also expressed concern that citizens have a right to know if petitions for waivers are being considered by EPA. Grumbles stated that the waivers could only be applied for by the states or communities, that the waiver process is subject to a public notice and participation, and that the current standards employed by the water system are protective of public health.
Turning to sustainability, Grumbles identified research that EPA completed with regard to the water infrastructure “Needs Gap.” The continuing review of drinking water infrastructure investment necessary to comply with the Clean Water Act (CWA) is estimated to be $122 billion and $102 billion to comply with the SDWA.
Grumbles referenced the Conference of Mayors Urban Water Council 2005 National City Water Survey that, he pointed out, sends a message to communities that pending water shortages call for adoption of water conservation measures. The EPA has focused on full-cost-pricing approaches that call for adjusting user rates to pay for sustaining water systems over time. Increasing rates to achieve water conservation is one way to potentially lower water consumption. Additionally, Grumbles stated that EPA has recently released a Guidebook on National Measures to control storm runoff which is intended to provide “green” technology/approaches that are less capital-intensive than traditional technology.
Participating mayors discussed their own water issues with Grumbles. Port St. Lucie (FL) Mayor Robert E. Minsky commented on the decade-long development his city experienced in constructing a wastewater treatment and collection system, beginning in 1994. City leaders decided to build a system in order to avoid 80,000 properties using septic systems. He noted that arbitrage rules in the current federal tax code makes water infrastructure more expensive than it has to be, and this affects the affordability issue. The current code requires cities to spend tax-exempt bond money within three years or pay a penalty. If a project spans over a decade, like it did in Port St. Lucie, a city has to return to the bond market a number of times, so it loses economies of scale and is subject to fluctuating interest rates as well as increased prices for labor and technology. “If the tax code is changed to help cities with these public health type projects, it would ease the burden on taxpayers and would be a blessing,” he stated.
Sugar Land (TX) Mayor David G. Wallace stated that the Conference has consistently adopted policy over the last five years in support of lifting state volume caps on private activity bonds for public-purpose water and sewer projects. Wallace noted that the 2005 Urban Water Council Survey shows that municipal commitment to major capital investments is strong, but private activity bonds are rarely used to finance these projects. He said that there is an enormous amount of private capital available for financing, and that using that capital can be done to advance the public good without any loss of control by municipal governments in asset ownership and user rates. He told Grumbles that he would like to work with EPA and get its support for changing the tax code by lifting state volume caps.
Chavez commented on a water infrastructure public education campaign under development by the Water Environment Federation (WEF). The central message of the campaign is Water is Life and Infrastructure Makes It Happen ™. The motivation for the campaign is a growing concern that the general public has grown acquiescent about water supplies; and there needs to be a concerted effort among municipal leaders and water professionals to remind them about the critical role water supply and quality play in everyday life. The UWC has been asked to work with WEF to generate and disseminate the message in principal cities of the United States.