NLC Testifies on Integrated Planning, Water Infrastructure Financing

December 19, 2011
by Carolyn Berndt

Joe Reardon, mayor and CEO of the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County, testified last week on behalf of NLC before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment about the need for a modern policy framework and resources to invest in the nation's water infrastructure systems. 

Mayor Reardon called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congress to work more effectively with local governments in making cost-effective and affordable investments in water quality. 

"Let's choose a new approach of cooperation and partnership over adversarial mandates. Let's design a solution which is cost-effective and affordable over a massive unfunded mandate which the citizens I, and you, represent can't afford," said Reardon.

The hearing focused on a recent EPA memorandum, "Achieving Water Quality Through Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Plans," which recognizes that many local governments face difficult financial conditions and commits EPA to developing a planning framework that will allow communities to evaluate all of their Clean Water Act stormwater and wastewater obligations and prioritize their investments in a manner that maximizes water quality gains. 

"I am hopeful that today's hearing will start moving us away from a 'one-size-fits-all' mandate and enforcement approach to an integrated regulatory planning and permitting approach to help EPA regional officials and state and local governments better prioritize Clean Water Act regulatory requirements while protecting the environment in a cost efficient manner," said subcommittee Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio).

Kansas City is currently negotiating a consent decree with EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice to address combined sewer overflows. Reardon told committee members that the cost of meeting the sewer overflow mandate would be four times the annual municipal budget. 

Given that many cities across the country are still reeling from the effect of the economic recession on city finances, there was near unanimity among the local and state government representatives, which included Omaha, Neb., Mayor Jim Suttle, that the EPA memorandum is a step in the right direction. They cautioned, however, that EPA should rely on permitting mechanisms, rather than enforcement actions, as the primary implementation method or process for integrated plans. 

In his testimony, Mayor Reardon also brought attention to the nation's aging water infrastructure systems and the need for a reliable, long-term source of substantial capital to help close the gap between current expenditures and anticipated needs. 

NLC supports the purposes of the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act (H.R. 3145), sponsored by subcommittee Ranking Member Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), which include authorizing appropriations for the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund program and establishing a new sewer overflow control grant for municipalities. 

NLC also supports additional options for long-term, alternative financing mechanisms for water infrastructure, such as mechanisms that lower the cost of borrowing that will help leverage local funding, offer direct loans and loan guarantees from the federal government to cities or remove the federal volume cap on tax-exempt bonds for water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

Additionally, last week, Gaithersburg, Md., Council Member Mike Sesma participated in a dialogue with Nancy Stoner, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Water, Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and other key officials from the EPA policy and enforcement offices on the integrated planning framework. Convened by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the meeting offered key stakeholders, including NLC, clean water utility leaders, state water program administrators and environmental organizations, an opportunity to hear from EPA on the draft framework and provide the Agency with feedback and additional perspectives. 

"EPA's commitment to integrated planning for infrastructure required to achieve and improve water quality and Clean Water Act compliance is a good move for local governments," said Sesma, who chairs NLC's Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee. "It complements efforts by cities seeking to shape a sustainable economic and environmental future and recognizes how local governments need to manage their operations. 

"I was pleased to hear Ms. Stoner, Ms. Giles and others emphasize that integrated planning can accommodate the flexibility needed by cities to maximize benefit and optimize cost for developing, building and expanding infrastructure to manage stormwater and wastewater," Sesma added. "The goal is to achieve a high level of water quality. How a local government accomplishes it will vary, but it should be both cost-effective and sustainable." 

EPA will hold workshops and listening sessions early next year to gather additional input and feedback from stakeholders on the integrated planning framework. NLC encourages cities to participate in these meetings. The workshops will take place in Atlanta (Jan. 31), New York City (Feb. 6), Seattle (Feb. 13), Kansas City, Mo., (Feb. 15) and Chicago (Feb. 17). Details will be published on the EPA website and in the Federal Register soon.

Details: To read NLC's full testimony, visit /influence-federal-policy.