Clean Water Act Integrated Permitting Framework Released

I’ve got a pretty old car – a ’97 Civic with almost 250,000 miles on it. Because I’ve maintained it regularly over the years, it’s still going strong. Nonetheless, an old car sometimes needs updates, and I was just hit with a pretty steep bill for repairs. And this was after paying the registration fee, County taxes and getting an emission inspection.

I’d love it if I could take care of all this at one time and in one place – that would make the process more efficient – and maybe less costly. But the bottom line is that if I want to drive, I’ve got to invest in my car for it to run and pay fees for the pollution and road wear it causes (there’s no free ride!).

In some ways, this is similar to what many communities face in maintaining and upgrading old water systems like wastewater treatment plants and collection systems. These water infrastructure systems need to be maintained over time to keep them working.

Unfortunately, many have suffered from lack of upkeep over the years – which combined with growing demands from sprawling development have led to the current state of crumbling infrastructure, sewer overflows and water main breaks.

There are also a variety of Clean Water Act protections in place to ensure clean water, which may require separate permitting and planning processes.  Some cities and water utilities have criticized the sometimes overlapping requirements as redundant and costly. That’s why, as a concept, EPA’s idea to establish a framework for integrated permitting and planning under the Clean Water Act, is a good one.

As I testified before Congress late last year, there’s a real need to manage water in a more integrated manner. At the same time, as we approach the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act, it’s also critical to redouble our efforts to achieve fishable and swimmable waters, and not to rollback critical safeguards like Congress is attempting right now.

This new framework encourages communities to look at all of their requirements simultaneously and determine if there are ways to sequence investments, or use approaches, like green infrastructure, that might address more than one regulatory requirement at a time.

Certainly there will be some kinks to be worked out (see here for our group comments on the draft framework [PDF]), but this could be a smart approach, especially for communities willing to invest in innovative solutions while maintaining the fundamental protections for clean water and public health.

Many mayors have been leading the charge for such an approach, and recent discussions among these municipal leaders have highlighted some of the ongoing questions about how much and in what to invest in for clean water. Here are some of our thoughts:

  • Better target sources of pollution and share the costs – Currently, much of the polluted stormwater runoff that flows into our rivers comes from unregulated places like big box stores and parking lots outside the reach of municipal stormwater programs. As Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield pointed out, it’s unfair that suburban areas are held to a different standard and asks that the “necessary costs be shared.” We agree – and in their efforts to update the municipal stormwater program, EPA is addressing exactly this concern by more fairly targeting such pollution sources in its upcoming stormwater regulations.
  • Investment creates economic opportunities – Protecting clean water and public health requires significant investments, but many communities aren’t considering innovative ways to finance our future water infrastructure. One of many ways to finance improvements for clean water that we presented as part of a recent report released with Ceres would be to adopt parcel-based billing, charging landowners for their actual contribution to stormwater pollution, flooding and sewer overflows. Such a system creates economic opportunity too – an NRDC report showed that Philadelphia’s fee and credit system generates almost $400 million in private investment opportunity as part of the City’s green plan to reduce their combined sewer overflows.
  • Freezing enforcement is not the answer – Several Mayors have called for a “time out” to enforcing the Clean Water Act as part of celebrating its successes (interesting logic!). Enforcement has already suffered significantly in recent years and cutting back further only encourages bad actors. As my colleague Jeff Odefey put it, “[p]roviding the quality and security of water services that our communities expect will require meaningful reforms to the way many cities and towns finance, pay for and build water infrastructure for tomorrow, not political relief from the Clean Water Act.”
  • Innovation and adaptation should be encouraged – Many cities around the country are beginning to integrate green infrastructure, like rain gardens and green roofs, into their stormwater codes and legal obligations to reduce combined sewer overflows because it’s a cost effective approach that can provide multiples benefits, a critical way to maximize every dollar invested. Cleveland’s plan for green infrastructure, including a component to substitute green infrastructure for “grey” where it is found to be more cost effective or beneficial, is projected to save $100 million. So, while some claim that using new approaches is thwarted by the Clean Water Act, the opposite seems to be true – a strong regulatory framework is a driver for innovation. And while in some cases, more time could be needed to allow for really new and comprehensive approaches, automatic extensions for the time required to achieve clean water goals aren’t the right solution.

Back to my car – I want it to be safe and reliable and I have to pay for that. Just as I can’t blame anyone else for if I’ve failed to keep to a regular maintenance schedule, nor can we be surprised that major investments are needed for clean and safe water after years of failing to regularly raise rates and maintain our water infrastructure. I’m anticipating some hefty repair bills in my future to keep the car running smoothly and ensure it’s not polluting the air too much. But it’s worth it, as are our streams, rivers and drinking water.