NLC to Congress: Affordability, Flexibility Key to Water Quality Protection

July 26, 2012

by Carolyn Berndt

becker testifiesOn Wednesday, Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, UT, testified on behalf of NLC before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment on the important role of clean water infrastructure investment in our communities and how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congress can partner more effectively with local governments to make smart investments to protect water quality.

Given the challenges local governments face in meeting Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements, as well as the conflicts they face in balancing environmental protection with economic feasibility, Mayor Becker called on EPA to implement the integrated planning framework in an affordable, flexible manner and through the use of permits rather than consent decrees to help communities pursue the best solutions for the environment and our nation's cities and towns. These key themes were echoed by additional state and local government representatives on the panel, as well as by members of the subcommittee.

"By using an integrated approach, a community can produce a viable plan that selects from among several options to afford the greatest environmental benefit and address regulatory requirements, while reducing their financial impacts," said Becker.

"Given the importance of clean water and the economic benefits of the Great Salt Lake to our region," he added, "we as city leaders know that if we do not take care of our water resources, we will undermine the economic underpinnings of our cities, states and nation."

The hearing focused on the Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework ("Framework") released by EPA last month, which gives communities the flexibility to prioritize capital investments and water infrastructure projects in order to meet the water quality objectives of the CWA in an efficient and cost effective manner.

"I believe it's time for the national clean water strategy to evolve from a one-size-fits-all mandate and enforcement approach to an integrated strategy that recognizes the individual public health needs and water quality benefits of water and wastewater utilities and the resource limitations of communities," said Subcommittee Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-OH). "Hopefully this initiative will truly give our communities the flexibility they need to prioritize their water quality requirements and address the huge unfunded costs associated with the growing number of mandates stemming from the EPA water rules and enforcement actions." 

Cities across the country face numerous CWA and Safe Drinking Water Act requirements, which often impose costly mandates on cities and taxpayers without regard to other regulatory requirements or compliance costs. While EPA guidance identifies two percent of median household income as the threshold for determining the affordability of rate or tax increases required to meet a regulatory requirement, Becker stated that this figure often does not provide an accurate account of what all citizens across the economic spectrum can afford. "These costs are all paid by the same people, our taxpayers, and it is an unfair burden," said Becker.

The hearing's panelists representing state and local governments and organizations, including Mayor David Berger of Lima, OH, agreed that EPA and the states can and should allow cities to implement an integrated plan through the use of permits, rather than consent decrees. Becker called on EPA to give cities and states the ability to extend permit cycles to longer timeframes to align with realistic and achievable goals of water quality improvements.

"This voluntary approach...will allow interested communities to develop and implement effective integrated plans under the Clean Water Act to address storm and wastewater management and to benefit from the economic efficiencies that an integrated approach will provide while still achieving their human health and water quality objectives. Yet, as the EPA has noted, the full benefits of the integrated planning approach may not be realized for some time as more and more communities come forward to develop individualized approaches to address their unique needs," said Subcommittee Ranking Member Timothy Bishop (D-NY).

In his testimony, Becker 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 Bishop, 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, for example, 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.

This was the subcommittee's second hearing on the EPA integrated planning approach, following a hearing held in December to examine EPA's initial proposal, in which Joe Reardon, Mayor and CEO of the Unified Government of Kansas City, KS, and Wyandotte County, testified on behalf of NLC.

Related:

Testimony: Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker (July 25, 2012)

Article: NLC Testifies on Integrated Planning, Water Infrastructure Financing (December 19, 2011)

Testimony: Kansas City and Wyandotte County Mayor and CEO Joe Reardon (December 14, 2011)