Nov 19, 2008

Obama Administration Likely to Make Water a Priority

President-elect Barack Obama has promised to increase funding for water treatment facilities

In an Obama administration that has vowed to make climate change a top priority, efforts to improve water treatment infrastructure, regulate emerging contaminants and protect wetlands are likely to grow, Greenwire reported.

Benjamin Grumbles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) assistant administrator for water, predicted that mitigating climate change’s impact on water supplies will be a priority for the Obama administration. “Water is at the heart of the climate change debate,” Grumbles said. “It is a core part of both the cause and the effects of climate change.”

During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama promised to increase federal funding for water treatment facilities and support initiatives aimed at reducing storm water runoff. And with rising concerns about the economy, prospects for a greater federal investment in water infrastructure have risen. Democrats have called for using water projects and other infrastructure work as an economic stimulus.

Federal funding for infrastructure has declined 70% over the last two decades, leaving much of the nation’s water and transportation infrastructure in desperate need of cash for maintenance, water industry representatives say.

“We hope that the package will contain upwards of $10 billion for wastewater infrastructure,” said Susan Bruninga, spokeswoman for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. “These are critical needs our communities have waiting. We’re ready to stick the shovels in the ground. These are projects that are necessary for environmental protection and public health.”

Jerry Johnson, general manager for the District of Columbia Water and Sewage Authority, said Washington is ready to start projects as soon as funding is available. “We have plans in place,” he said. “We have programs and projects that are ready to go. With those kinds of programs, we could put many, many people to work.”

Bruninga said sewage treatment plants will have a good shot at increased funding. “It’s not just because of who got elected,” she said. “People are starting to see that you just can’t build something and never pay attention to it again.”

Drinking water
Monitoring pharmaceuticals and contaminants like perchlorate in water supplies will be another key issue for the Obama administration, Grumbles said. The president-elect has promised to assure that drinking water standards are updated to address new threats.

Environmentalists have long sought regulation of perchlorate and have expressed concern about the health effects of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, particularly following reports that prescription drugs were affecting hormone levels in some fish.

“Those are all health issues,” said Nancy Stoner, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) water program. “I certainly heard Mr. Obama talk a lot about health issues in the campaign, so I would hope that he would be urging his EPA head to investigate ways of reducing, substituting products, treating those pollutants and reducing the incidence in our waterways, particularly in our drinking water.”

Environmentalists also hope President Obama and an empowered Democratic Congress will help pass a controversial wetlands protection bill, S. 1870, next session.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is planning to reintroduce the legislation, which he says would restore Clean Water Act protections for wetlands in the wake of Supreme Court decisions that improperly narrowed the meaning of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act.

Stoner said the bill will be a top priority for NRDC in the coming months. Democrats have supported the bill in the Senate, so a larger Democratic majority could speed its passage, she said. Additionally, Obama has promised to make wetlands preservation a priority in his administration.