A Call for Change

Nov. 3, 2016
WRDA 2016 offers a glimmer of hope to communities with failing water systems

About the author: Brent Fewell is a former deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water and founder of the Earth & Water Group, where he advises clients on compliance with environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. Fewell can be reached at [email protected].

This past month, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed versions of the Water Resource Development Act (WRDA) of 2016, which now heads to conference to hammer out the differences. With all the gridlock in Washington, this bipartisan bill was a significant feat and one to be celebrated. Among many U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil works projects, WRDA also included funding for the beleaguered community of Flint, Mich., to tackle its water contamination problem. In addition, the Senate bill, S. 2848, includes a provision called the Booker Amendment (named after Senator Booker) that, if enacted, will help bring us closer to fixing our nation’s failing water systems. 

Thousands—yes, thousands—of water and wastewater systems are seriously noncompliant with federal and state laws. In most cases, the communities with these failing systems simply do not have the financial, technical or operational capacity to maintain their systems. Most serve small communities—ranging from small trailer parks to rural communities with populations under 10,000—but, surprisingly, many serve larger communities like Flint.

Indeed, Flint was a turning point. What the public needs to understand is that this isn’t simply about a water infrastructure crisis. It’s increasingly become a public health crisis with serious public health ramifications.

Laying Down the Law

Following Flint, a growing number of water leaders and organizations began talking in earnest about solutions. How much longer were we simply going to talk about failing infrastructure? What could the federal, state and local governments do to change the status quo?

Talk is cheap; action is hard. However, over the last few months, leaders from the National Assn. of Water Companies, American Water Works Assn., Assn. of State Drinking Water Administrators, Assn. of Metropolitan Water Agencies, and National Rural Water Assn., among others, convened to discuss targeted solutions through new partnerships.  

These leaders began exploring the idea of giving failing systems a clear option: Seek out and enter into a new partnership with another water system or partner (i.e., good Samaritan) to get back on a path toward compliance, or do nothing and risk the consequences of the heavy hand
of enforcement.  

Many local officials have long opposed the idea of compelled consolidation, but their leadership recognized the need to do something. While the Booker Amendment does not compel consolidation, it makes consolidation and other forms of partnership far more attractive than the alternative.

I’m excited to report that these discussions led to common-sense reforms that made it into the Senate WRDA bill. If enacted, these proposed changes to Section 1420 of the Safe Drinking Water Act would create a clear pathway for distressed water systems to meet safe drinking water compliance requirements by increasing incentives to boost technical, managerial and financial accountability by encouraging collective partnerships. 

Additionally, the Booker Amendment would:

  • Allow State Revolving Funds (SRF funds) to be used by a water system to assess partnership options and engage in peer-to-peer assistance, in addition to providing other technical assistance, as necessary, to achieve compliance; 
  • Establish an enforcement “safe harbor” to new partners for historical noncompliance, thus removing a significant obstacle to new partnerships;
  • Encourage the use of self-audit and disclosure policies that include an assessment of the completeness and accuracy of monitoring and data reported to the primacy agency;
  • Require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop incentives to encourage reciprocity among states to provide greater mobility of certified operators, with a focus on helping rural and disadvantaged communities;
  • Require EPA to develop guidance on the availability and use of all available federal funds from EPA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to maximize flexibility for use of co-funding for partnerships; and 
  • Establish a best practices repository, sharing examples of practices involving operational, technical and financial capacity. 

I would encourage readers to support the adoption of these common sense changes to ensure communities have access to a safe and reliable source of drinking water. Contact your local congressman or Senator to say yes to the Booker Amendment. 

About the Author

Brent Fewell