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Environment Committee Focuses on Priorities for Congress, President Obama’s Second Term

By Jubi Headley
January 28, 2013

With both President Obama’s second term and a new session of Congress set to begin, the meeting of the Environment Standing Committee focused on key priorities for each. First, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe outlined key priorities for the Obama Administration’s second term. Chief among these is a commitment to strengthen partnerships with municipal and local governments, and to ensure that federal projects are aligned with local priorities. As one example Perciasepe pointed to EPA’s work with the Conference of Mayors over the past year to develop an integrated planning process for cities’ implementation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The framework, (also known as IP3), is designed to promote greater flexibility for cities struggling to finance and maintain existing wastewater infrastructure and services and respond to new federal regulations that expand city responsibilities, such as costly control of stormwater and sewer overflows. Perciasepe noted that just in the past week EPA had taken another step in this process, by coming up with an affordability framework to address issues such as financing and scheduling. Other programs that might benefit from a similarly collaborative or integrated approach, according to Perciasepe, include the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, as well as efforts to better integrate combined sewer overflow and stormwater planning.

Beyond integrated planning, other Administration priorities mentioned by Perciasepe include:

  • Green Infrastructure. Unlike single-purpose gray stormwater infrastructure, which uses pipes to dispose of rainwater, green infrastructure uses vegetation and soil to manage rainwater where it falls. By weaving natural processes into the built environment, green infrastructure provides not only stormwater management, but also flood mitigation and air quality management, among other benefits. EPA is conducting pilot projects in a number of cities to assess the effectiveness of green infrastructure practices.

  • Brownfields. EPA has added funding for local brownfields redevelopment planning processes. As Perciasepe noted, brownfields redevelopment is more than a significant environmental benefit—it’s an economic engine as well. EPA believes that there could be as many as 85,000 jobs associated with brownfields redevelopment.

U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee staff member Jason Albritton outlined the legislative priorities for Committee Chairwoman Senator Barbara Boxer (CA) during the upcoming session of Congress. Chief among these is reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Last authorized in 2007, WRDA is the authorizing legislation of the Army Corps of Engineers. According to Albritton, WRDA reauthorization is also a priority for the committee’s ranking minority member, Senator David Vitter (LA), which they hope bodes well for a bipartisan effort to pass the legislation. Passage of the bill would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to begin spending federal dollars on a number of projects. Key provisions of the bill are likely to include an “extreme weather” title to give the Corps immediate authority to better respond to disasters, as well as measures addressing improved levee safety, waterways, airports, and other key infrastructure provisions.

Other issues and legislation that Boxer is likely to place on the EPW agenda during the upcoming session include:

  • The Water Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act, proposed by Boxer, which aims to provide new tools and mechanisms to help local governments finance this work. Albritton said this program is intended to supplement state revolving funds, not replace them. Albritton noted that the bill enjoyed substantial bipartisan support in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during the last session, and Boxer hopes to replicate that support in this session.

Boxer held a number of hearings on climate change in the last session and the issue will continue to be at the forefront of the EPW agenda during this session. Related to this, EPW will focus on the issue of superstorms, such as Hurricane Sandy, to determine whether these types of storms are occurring more often, as well as the level of infrastructure investment adequate to deal with increasing superstorms.

The Committee will also focus on clean energy, energy efficiency, other measures to reduce emissions across the board.

Finally, law firm for Best, Best & Krieger, LLP partner Shawn Haggerty provided an update on a decision by the United States Supreme Court with important ramifications for cities. In early January, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, which held that the flow of water from an improved portion of a navigable waterway into an unimproved portion of the same waterway does not qualify as a discharge of pollutants subject to the federal Clean Water Act. The Court found that discharge from one part of a river to another part of the same river does not result in the addition of pollutants to the river, because the two parts of the river are not meaningfully distinct. This decision reversed a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that did hold the Los Angeles County Flood Control District liable. Haggerty noted that because the decision places limites on the reach of the Clean Water Act as applied to stormwater and water transfers, it will play an important role in future decisions about what can and cannot be regulated under the Clean Water Act. For more information on this issue, contact Judy Sheahan on the Conference of Mayors staff.