water

Citizen scientists test Warwick, RI, water

By Amy Miller

It’s not every day you can get your training as a citizen scientist with the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency standing beside you. So residents of Warwick were pretty excited when Curt Spalding, administrator for EPA’s New England office, showed up for their one-day session on how to join professional scientists in keeping their region’s ponds healthy.

EPA scientist Hillary Snook, Regional Administrator Curt Spalding and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian participate in day of training for citizen scientists.

EPA scientist Hilary Snook, Regional Administrator Curt Spalding and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian participate in day of training for citizen scientists.

Spalding was pretty happy himself to be out there in the field, watching the work citizens are doing so they too can help out in reducing the amount of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in local waterways. Curt is a big advocate of the program and loves the idea of hands-on citizens involvement, noted Hilary Snook, EPA New England’s lead scientist on this project.

Hilary and other EPA scientists have been traveling around New England this summer in a shiny white mobile lab, teaching citizens how they can play a part in monitoring for this bacteria, which is clogging our region’s and nation’s waterways. The team has already been to several locations around New England including White Pond in Concord, Mass. whose town beach was shut down for the entire 2015 season due to cyanobacteria.

Curt decided to tag along on the trip to Warwick, where a handful of citizens joined local, state and federal representatives for what turned out to be a rainy day of training at Gorton Pond, just behind the Warwick police station.

Warwickvisit2EPA’s new mobile laboratory was outfitted with the computers, microscopes and monitors that provide the on-site training. The mobile lab is designed to take people through all of the main parts of the program, with hands-on experience right at their local body of water.

A video presentation introduced the program to the group, with a so-called “Mi-Fi system” providing direct connection to webpages used for the program. Microscopes inside the vehicle let citizens identify samples taken from Gorton Pond and then upload them to citizen science databases.

Hilary showed volunteers how they could upload EPA’s bloomWatch app to their own devices then and there to submit photos of blooms.

The data collected by volunteers is useful for EPA and other environmental agencies trying to clean waterways and reduce bacteria levels. The system is simple enough that everyone from middle school students to academics and lake associations can participate.

EPA hopes added information will help determine where cyanobacterial blooms exist, whether they contain potential toxin producing species, and whether the existing blooms are toxic.

Through the Northeast Cyanobacteria Monitoring Program, volunteers were invited to get involved at three different levels. Besides the bloomWatch app, they can learn how to take water samples and then study them under a microscope. Some volunteers took home a kit that includes a microscope. Finally, volunteers can collect samples and then send them to EPA for further study using the program’s established protocols.

Citizen scientists in New England join volunteers around the country and world who are helping in this effort. Cyanobacteria blooms are caused mainly by nutrients, particularly phosphorus. With climate change and heavier rainstorms, more nutrients are running off the land into freshwater lakes and ponds. The toxins that can be produced by these bacteria can cause skin rashes and liver damage.

All of which means it’s important to Curt, it’s important to EPA and it’s important to all of us to address the increasing occurrences of harmful cyanobacteria blooms in our nation’s and region’s lakes and ponds.

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Amy Miller works in the office of public affairs at EPA New England

 

More information is available at: https://blog.epa.gov/blog/tag/citizen-science/

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A Rural Alaskan Native Village’s Journey for Safe Drinking Water

By Joel Beauvais

Here, Joel Beauvais peeks into the settling chamber of the package water treatment system

Here, Joel Beauvais peeks into the settling chamber of the package water treatment system

I recently returned from a work trip to Alaska, where I met with colleagues from EPA’s Alaska Operations Office and Alaska’s Department of Conservation to discuss a variety of water-related  issues and tour a few facilities, communities, and projects. I expected to be to be wowed by the good work Alaskans are doing to protect their waters while strengthening their communities, but what I didn’t expect was to be so moved by one native village’s journey to provide their families with in-home piped water and sewer lines for the first time.

Kwethluk is one of Alaska’s oldest, rural, and remote villages. It’s located in southwest Alaska and accessible only by air or water. Most in the nearly 800-person community still practice a subsistence lifestyle, relying on the nearby and bountiful Kwethluk River. Due to the surrounding challenging environment and perceived high costs to construct, operate, and maintain a drinking water and wastewater system, the village did not have access to community water and wastewater infrastructure. Villagers self-hauled potable water to their homes from a central distribution point and disposed of human waste in open buckets that were transferred in collection containers to a lagoon outside of town. These conditions presented not only quality of life issues but health and safety risks, too. Exposure to life-threatening bacteria and parasites spills was common and contamination quickly spread throughout the community by rain and airborne dust.

Kwethluk was the perfect candidate for EPA’s Alaska Native Village (ANV) program funding. Since 1996, the ANV program has distributed nearly $520 million in funds for sustainable and affordable in-home water and sanitation services in 240 Alaskan native villages and 60 non-native underserved communities. Funds are used for the planning, design, construction and/or repair of new or improved water and wastewater systems.

In 2009 EPA’s ANV program, in cooperation with U.S. Department of Agriculture, the State of Alaska, and the Indian Health Service, initiated the funding for the construction for Kwethluk’s first-ever drinking water and wastewater community facilities as well as the plumbing to every Kwethluk home.

Construction of sewer collection piping in the Kwethluk, Alaska community.

Construction of sewer collection piping in the Kwethluk, Alaska community.

After years of studying, planning, and hard work, today, more than 150 Kwethluk families are experiencing their first warm showers and flushing toilets in their bathrooms and clean, safe drinking water from their kitchen faucets. My EPA and Alaskan state colleagues gave me a tour of the community where I got to see the final phases of this monumental effort.

I also got to see the community’s new sewage disposal lagoon, water treatment plant, and a huge,318,000-gallon water storage tank, which were also built with support from the ANV program.

Here is an image of the inside workings of the Kwethluk water treatment plant.

Here is an image of the inside workings of the Kwethluk water treatment plant.

The heart of any arctic or subarctic water system like the one in Kwethluk is the water treatment plant.  Not only does the water treatment plant treat the water from the Kwethluk River to meet EPA drinking water standards, the water treatment plant also heats and circulates the water throughout town so the water mains do not freeze. This circulation requires twice as many water mains as a conventional system as well as additional heat, which substantially increases operational costs. To help reduce costs, the Kwethluk water treatment plant is exploring the use of an innovative remote monitoring system that would send automatic alerts via wireless system to the local maintenance employee of imminent issues such as freezing pipes, water quality problems, or excessive energy use. These alerts help prevent costly maintenance fixes that require labor and materials to be flown in, offset the plant’s technical and management support costs, as well as could ensure high quality drinking water.

While it was moving to learn about Kwethluk’s long journey to have its first in-home water and sewer access, there are still over 35  communities in Alaska that don’t have access to a safe, modern drinking water and sanitation system—which is unacceptable. EPA remains committed more than ever to working with our state, federal, local, and tribal partners to ensure that every American, no matter where they live, has access to safe drinking water and modern wastewater management where and when they need it.

 

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Taking Back the Beachhead

By Cameron Davis

Part of what makes our cities and towns around the Great Lakes so important is our beaches. During the seasonable months—and even in the not-so-seasonable months, when a growing cadre of surfers shred the waves —big cities like Chicago get tens of millions of visits to their lakefronts. Great Lakes towns have some of the best beaches in the world…some with legendary “singing sands” (sand that makes noise when it is walked on), fresh water that doesn’t burn your eyes, and of course, no sharks or stinging jellyfish. Just ask organizations like the Great Lakes Beach Association that work to keep our beaches great.

But, from time to time, swimming advisories go into effect because of high pathogen levels. Nearby runoff drains, parking lots, and attractions for birds and wildlife (leftover picnics, overflowing garbage from trash cans, intentional wildlife feeding, wastewater overflows, the list goes on…) result in microbial pollution that can turn a day at the beach from a blast to a bummer.

This week in Sandusky, Ohio, I joined U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur and several mayors to announce more than $2 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding to protect beaches and shoreline areas by using green infrastructure. That is the use of nature—green roofs, wetlands, rain gardens, bioswales and other plants to capture polluted runoff—to protect and improve nearby water quality.

As  Dave Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative said at the time of the announcement, “Cities all along the Great Lakes are working hard to connect with the water in ways that are good for the Lakes and good for the quality of life and economic well-being of the people who live there.  These investments are yet another example of how the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is making a huge difference on the shores and in the Lakes.”

These projects won’t rescue all the beaches around the Great Lakes in every way. However, little by little, thanks to the GLRI—the largest Great Lakes-only investment in ecosystem health in U.S. history—the beachhead assaults we experience will be about fewer swimming advisories and instead, result in cleaner water for recreation.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Three Ways Climate Change is Harming Marine Species

By Brittany Whited

Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century. EPA’s Climate Change Indicator project tracks changes in our environment related to this warming, including observable changes on land like wildfire severity, snowfall, and heavy precipitation. A new indicator on marine species released in the 4th Edition of EPA’s Climate Change Indicators in the US report shows that marine ecosystems are also feeling the heat. We may not be able to “sea” it, but climate change is also affecting our oceans. What does this mean for fish and other marine species?

1. Oceans are getting hotter. Changes in water temperature can affect the environments where fish, shellfish, and other marine species live. As climate change causes the oceans to become warmer year-round, populations of some species may adapt by shifting toward cooler areas.

According to the fourth edition of EPA’s Climate Change Indicators in the United States report, American lobster, black sea bass, red hake, and over a hundred other populations of marine species have already shifted north to cooler waters. And we’re not talking a mile or two – in fact, these three economically important species have shifted their average center of biomass northward by an average of 109 miles over just 32 years. For all 105 marine species studied, the average center of biomass along U.S. coasts shifted northward by about 12 miles between 1982 and 2014. At the same time, these 105 species moved an average of 18 feet deeper.

2. Oceans are becoming more acidic. The acidity of seawater is increasing as a direct result of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the air from human activities, like burning fossil fuels. Concentrations of carbon dioxide are higher than in the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide dissolves in water, changing seawater chemistry and decreasing pH (making seawater more acidic). The ocean’s increased acidity results in thinner shells and more shellfish die as they become easier for predators to eat.

Corals are also very sensitive to rising acidity, as it is difficult for them to create and maintain the skeletal structures needed for their support and protection. Corals provide vital fish spawning habitat and support for thousands of marine species. EPA’s Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action states that without action on climate change, dramatic loss of shallow coral cover is predicted to occur. For example, coral cover in Hawaii is projected to decline from 38% (current coral cover) to approximately 5% by 2050 without significant global action on climate change.

3. More severe storms and precipitation can pollute coastal waters. Warmer oceans increase the amount of water that evaporates into the air. When more moisture-laden air moves over land or converges into a storm system, it can produce more intense precipitation—for example, heavier rain storms. Heavy rain in coastal areas can lead to increases in runoff and flooding, impairing water quality as pollutants on land wash into water bodies. Some coastal areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, are already experiencing “dead zones” – areas where water is depleted of oxygen because of pollution from agricultural fertilizers, delivered by runoff. The phrase “dead zone” comes from the lack of life – including fish – in these waters.

Click to learn what EPA is doing to mitigate climate change and protect ocean water quality and marine species.

About the Author: Brittany Whited is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) participant hosted by the Climate Science and Impacts Branch in the EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs. She recently completed her Master’s degree in Public Health from George Washington University and is wicked excited to spend less time studying and more time outside.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A Reflection on the Gold King Mine Incident

By Mathy Stanislaus

Today, we are releasing a new publication, One Year After the Gold King Mine Incident: A Retrospective of EPA’s Efforts to Restore and Protect Communities. The report details our efforts — including the projects and groups we have funded — to protect the areas around the Gold King Mine (GKM) and prevent another spill like this from happening at other EPA work sites at mines across the country.

We continue to be accountable for the release, which occurred as a result of our work to investigate the mine. Since the accident, we have dedicated more than $29 million to respond to the release and to provide for continued monitoring in the area. Over the past year, we have remained committed to distilling important lessons from the incident, and are working on a more permanent solution to acid mine drainage in the Upper Animas Watershed. We have improved and tested stakeholder notification lists, instituted a headquarters review and state consultation process for all mine work plans prior to starting work at a site, provided grant assistance to foster collaboration and help support state and tribal water quality management programs,  and are developing a national report on best practices for hardrock mine remediation. We have worked with communities within the Bonita Peak Mining District area for many years on long-term solutions to address the estimated discharge of more than 5 million gallons per day of acidic mine influenced water to the Upper Animas River watershed. In April, we proposed a Superfund National Priorities Listing for the Bonita Peak Mining District (which includes Gold King Mine) and are working to finalize the listing this fall.

As Assistant Administrator for our Office of Land and Emergency Management, I can say that tackling the national environmental issue of abandoned mines is one of the toughest challenges we face. There are no overarching federal statutes or regulations for addressing the environmental contamination from abandoned hardrock mines. When requested by state or tribal partners, our Superfund program has been used to investigate and remediate abandoned mines that present a high risk to human and environmental health.  A 2015 Government Accountability Office report estimates that we spend anywhere from 7 to 52 times more at mining sites than at other types of Superfund sites.

Overall, the scale of this problem is striking. There are at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines in the western U.S. states and Alaska. Water draining from these types of mines and mine tailings are often highly acidic and release heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum into the groundwater and surface waters the public relies on for drinking, agricultural irrigation and recreation.

The legacy of abandoned hardrock mines continues to be a source of complex challenges for our and the other federal and state agencies working to address this impact over the long-term. We thank all of our federal, tribal, state and local partners for their contributions to this first year of work following the GKM incident. We are strongly committed to working together to achieve long-term solutions to prevent future releases and protect our vital water resources. For more information, please visit: https://www.epa.gov/goldkingmine.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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EPA and USDA Pledge Actions to Support America’s Growing Water Quality Trading Markets

By Ann Mills, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment and Ellen Gilinsky, EPA Office of Water Senior Policy Advisor

In September of 2015, EPA and USDA sponsored a three-day national workshop at the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute in Lincoln, Nebraska that brought together more than 200 experts and leaders representing the agricultural community, utilities, environmental NGOs, private investors, states, cities, and tribes to discuss how to expand the country’s small but growing water quality trading markets. Recently we released a report that summarizes the workshop’s key discussions and outlines new actions that we and others will take to further promote the use of market-based tools to advance water quality improvements.

Over the last decade, states and others have discovered that they can meet their water quality improvement goals through lower costs and greater flexibility by using a voluntary water quality trading program. Trading is based on the fact that sources in a watershed can face very different costs to control the same pollutant. Trading programs allow facilities facing higher pollution control costs (like a wastewater treatment plant or a municipality with a stormwater permit) to meet their regulatory obligations by purchasing lower cost environmentally equivalent (or superior) pollution reductions (or credits) from another source, including farms that use conservation practices to efficiently reduce the movement of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from their fields into local waterways. For example, Virginia’s nutrient trading program to offset stormwater phosphorous loads from new development has saved the Commonwealth more than $1 million in meeting state water quality goals while providing economic incentives to local agricultural producers to reduce soil erosion and runoff.

It’s a proven approach that creates new revenue streams for America’s farmers and ranchers while delivering significant environmental results.

While relatively few robust state and tribal water quality trading programs are in existence today, there is growing interest in markets as a tool for achieving water quality and ecosystem sustainability goals.

Our report summarizes the primary obstacles to market expansion and participants’ recommendations on how to simplify development of trading markets in their states.

It also captures the participants’ recommendations to the Administration on steps it can take to promote the use of environmental markets and water quality trading, which include:

  • Supporting a national dialogue series over the next three years, convened by the National Network On Water Quality Trading, to advance collective understanding of water quality program design, implementation, and operation across sectors and communities;
  • Increasing state awareness of water quality trading, through support of the  Association of Clean Water Administrators working directly with state agencies;
  • Highlighting successful trading programs that have attracted private capital, or are otherwise financially sustainable;
  • Compiling a list of known, voluntary conservation program design frameworks that use market-like approaches;
  • Pursuing efforts to develop a national registry for water quality trading programs;
  • Forming a stakeholder group to develop a list of tools that meet the minimum requirements of the federal and state agencies that must verify trades Increase targeted stakeholder engagement; and,
  • Working with federal and state partners to actively engage in locations where increasing participation in market-based programs may result in more rapid nutrient decreases to address immediate problems such as harmful algal blooms.

These recommendations complement the USDA-EPA Water Quality Trading Roadmap and EnviroAtlas, products our agencies have jointly developed to simplify stakeholders’ efforts to establish their own trading markets.

States, communities, and farmers and ranchers who’ve championed this innovative idea are creating momentum for others to follow.  We look forward to supporting the expansion of these markets to help  America more efficiently protect its water quality while supporting a vibrant agricultural economy in communities nationwide.

For more information, visit the USDA Environmental Markets website and EPA’s Water Quality Trading website.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Investing in America’s Water Infrastructure – Answering the “How to Pay?” Question

By Jim Gebhardt, CFA

Clean and reliable water is critical for life and, as our Administrator recently said, “needs to be available to everyone—no matter what part of the country you live, no matter how much money you make, and no matter the color of your skin.” Yet, despite the notion of water as an inalienable right and that most Americans value well-run drinking water and wastewater delivery systems, communities across the country continue to struggle with setting up adequate and sustainable revenue structures required to support needed infrastructure investment and system management.

That’s why we launched our Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center last year to explore leading-edge solutions to funding and revenue challenges, and identify and support best practices.

As I blogged about earlier, EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund has provided more than $141 billion in low-interest loans to state and local water infrastructure projects since 1987. Today these state-run programs operate with almost $60 billion in program equity that will continue to be available to support sustainable lending programs.

Looking ahead, we see lots of opportunities for states to support market-based solutions that address stormwater mitigation challenges, source water protection, on-site wastewater management, and marketplaces for nutrient pollution credit trading. It’s also encouraging to see some states exploring how their triple-A credit rating can be used to guarantee debt and provide additional credit access to stimulate these kind of water quality investments.

But we aren’t stopping there.

We’re looking at emerging and promising finance mechanisms that address water quality and quantity challenges such as Pay for Success, Pay for Performance, green bonds, energy and water performance contracting, water quality trading, and conservation financing strategies.

We’re researching procurement and funding strategies associated with public-private and public-public partnerships in the water sector.

We’re working with the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina to develop public-private and public-public project (P3) profiles and an evaluation tool to help local officials determine if there is value in pursuing P3 opportunities in their community.

We’re busy developing a water finance information clearinghouse. The first portal will provide up to date information on stormwater management frameworks, funding and revenue solutions. We plan to launch the portal this fall.

No matter where you live, we are here to help. We also invite you to attend one of our upcoming engagement opportunities:

EPA Twitter Chat: On July 27 at 2 pm EST EPA experts will be answering your water infrastructure finance questions. Direct your questions to @EPAwater and use the hashtag #WaterFinance.

Environmental Financial Advisory Board meeting: On August 9 and 10 the Environmental Financial Advisory Board will meet in Denver, Colorado, to discuss ideas and advice to provide EPA on ways to lower the costs of and increase investments in environmental and public health protection.

Regional Finance Forums: EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center will continue hosting regional forums across the country to bring together communities with water infrastructure financing needs to network, hear local success stories from peers, and have an opportunity to meet key regional funding and technical assistance contacts. Check out our website for upcoming dates and locations.

About the author: Jim Gebhardt is the director for EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center. The Center identifies financing approaches for public health and environmental goals by providing financial expertise to help communities make better-informed decisions about drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The future holds a cleaner Lake Champlain

By Curt Spalding

To stand at the edge of Lake Champlain, looking at the rich blue water in the foreground and the Adirondack mountaintops in the background, is to behold one of New England’s most beautiful landscapes.

On a brilliant summer day, I have seen anglers trolling here for bass, sailors riding the wind and Champlain4children frolicking along the shores. I have seen the commerce that comes with half a million tourists and commuters who are ferried across the lake to New York each year.

But for years, this exquisitely beautiful source of economic growth, local pride and drinking water for 145,000 people has been compromised by too much phosphorus. Runoff from farms, rooftops, parking lots, roads, and forests, eroding stream banks and discharges from wastewater treatment facilities have all added to phosphorus overload.

Most of our regions’ lakes, rivers and streams contain some amount of naturally occurring phosphorus. But each waterbody can hold only so much phosphorus before it creates an ecosystem choked with algae that suffocates wildlife and makes waters unsafe for swimming. Lake Champlain has been over its limit for decades now, especially in the narrow, southern portion of the lake, and St. Albans and Missisquoi Bays.

However, we have reason to feel assured that the future will bring a cleaner and healthier Lake Champlain. This month my colleagues at EPA issued the final version of a new plan that spells out how much phosphorus the various parts of this lake can support. This document, called a “Total Maximum Daily Load” plan sets new required pollution reduction targets for the Vermont sources of phosphorus to the 120-mile-long lake that separates northwestern Vermont from northeastern New York.

Cham[plain2The new limits, along with a state law passed last year give the state responsibility for reaching the targets, and for coming up with the controls necessary for achieving these goals. I have watched state and environmental leaders work long and hard to shape the plans and policies and I am confident that the programs, regulations and permits they are now working to put in place will succeed in reducing phosphorus levels from farms, commercial developments, roads, and forests.

The new limits were developed in collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the Vermont Agency of Transportation, who each have a role in the success of this plan. The new plan reflects years of work and input from many organizations and people across the Lake Champlain basin.

While the new limits are a major milestone on the path to reducing phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain and in preventing the algae blooms, much work still has to be done to make the lake as healthy as it can and should be. Nearly everybody who lives, works or vacations in the basin contributes to the problem in some way and it will take an “all in” effort to bring the lake back to good health. Our EPA staff will be there to help our partners and ensure we achieve the desired levels. And we’ll issue report cards to help all of us and the public keep track of the progress.

One of my biggest joys in working at the New England office of the Environmental Protection Agency is witnessing the restoration of our beautiful lakes. Lake restoration happens slowly and requires effort over many years, particularly for large lakes like Lake Champlain, but I’m optimistic that the key ingredients are in place to bring about gradual recovery of this special body of water.

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Curt Spalding is regional administrator of EPA’s New England office.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Water Infrastructure is Everyone’s Business

By Joel Beauvais

Safe drinking water and effective wastewater management are basic building blocks of public health. Too often, we neglect our infrastructure until it fails. We need to invest in America’s water infrastructure – and we need to be strategic about doing it right – especially in disadvantaged communities.

We’ve known for years that our nation’s investments in water and wastewater infrastructure weren’t keeping up with the needs—which EPA estimates at $655 billion over the next 20 years. But those struggles are not the same everywhere—they are most acute in low-income and small communities.

In the wealthiest country on Earth, clean water needs to be available to everyone–no matter what part of the country you live in, no matter how much or how little money you make, and no matter the color of your skin.

To fix the problem, we’ll not only need innovative financing to leverage more investment, but we’ll also need to help these communities build capacity—so they can sustainably manage and operate their water systems, get access to those funds, and put them to good use.

We have to start by confronting the same ingrained, systemic challenges that threaten our country’s water resources – a resource that’s essential to every human being on the planet.

  • That means taking a serious look at America’s aging water infrastructure – in both urban and rural communities across the country – and asking ourselves what needs to be done to upgrade it.
  • That means finding better ways to address legacy pollutants, while striving to better understand the risks of emerging pollutants—and what they mean for water treatment technologies moving forward.
  • That means asking hard questions about how we achieve environmental justice—and how we deal with the long-term disinvestment in low income communities that contributed to situations like the terrible one we saw in Flint.

Everyone needs to bring their tools to the table—at the local, tribal and state level—along with utilities, investors, community advocates, and civil society. There’s a lot of innovative work going on out there, and we need to share and leverage each other’s ideas and expertise.

Joel Beauvais speaks from behind the conference panel table with four other presenters facing a room filled with conference attendees.

Joel Beauvais, Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, speaks on a panel about best practices in water infrastructure funding coordination in Washington, DC.

For one thing, we need to make sure our current funding is working as hard as it can. Some states have been especially successful in leveraging EPA capitalization grants into more money—that can be lent to borrowers at below-market interest rates. We need to transfer these lessons to all states.

We also need new tools. EPA is getting started with one new one—our Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA, authority, to provide loans for large infrastructure projects. We hope to have rules on this out by the end of this year.

Finally, we also need to attract more private capital into the infrastructure market. This is not a new idea—many communities have been doing this for years, but we need to apply lessons learned to other parts of the country.

We know that for our infrastructure to stand the test of time, we have to build sustainability and climate resilience into our designs. EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center was created a year and a half ago to provide innovative financial and technical guidance to communities.

Already, they’re helping communities across the country make better-informed decisions about financing resilient, sustainable infrastructure projects—consistent with their local needs. We’re doing it through direct outreach, tools, and strategies shared in regional water finance forums and everyday conversations. We also provide technical assistance grants to help small systems get the technical, managerial, and financial capacity they need to stay sustainable over the long term.

The WaterCare project, announced earlier this year, is also helping communities in need by offering targeted financial and technical planning and guidance.

And EPA is developing a drinking water action plan that focuses on addressing environmental justice and equity in infrastructure funding. We’ll be releasing that later this year.

We are committed to working with all of you to strengthen our nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Our health—and our national security—depend on it.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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The Time to Invest in America’s Water Infrastructure is Now

By Jim Gebhardt, CFA

Communities across the country are facing the immediate challenges of aging and inadequate drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. Most of our country’s underground water infrastructure was built 50 or more years ago, and in some older cities, water mains are a century old. The implications of deteriorating infrastructure can be felt nationwide— each year our country experiences about 240,000 water main breaks, $2.6 billion is lost as our water mains leak trillions of gallons of treated drinking water, and billions of gallons of raw sewage are discharged into local surface waters from aging sewer overflows.

Despite significant federal, state, and local expenditures, infrastructure investment has fallen short. Further, the cumulative investment gap is expected to widen substantially over the next 20 years with federal investments occupying a smaller space. EPA’s Clean Watershed Needs Survey and Drinking Water Needs Survey show that over $655 billion dollars in water infrastructure is needed over the next 20 years to keep pace with projected investment needs.

Over the years EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund have both been very successful at addressing important water quality and public health needs of communities across the country. With these funds we have supported state and local water infrastructure investment that provides essential services and reduces pollution in our waterways.

While our state revolving funds have been highly successful, there are still too many communities facing infrastructure challenges caused by inadequate revenue and investment.

That’s why in 2015 we launched EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center to identify and promote best management practices that can help local leaders to make informed decisions for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure that are consistent with local needs. The Center promotes the effective use of federal funds, identifies new approaches for procuring infrastructure services and capital investment for local and state governments, and employs strategies that can better serve small and lower income communities.

To explore the unique funding and financing challenges of these communities, EPA will be hosting a national convening on July 19 in Washington, DC, where state, local, and federal leaders will share best practices in coordinating funding and showcase innovative local financing solutions. I’m confident that the robust representation of states, utilities, NGOs, academics, and others will produce meaningful and productive conversations and solutions. Watch for a blog that details the conversations and next steps from the event.

The time to act is now.

About the author: Jim Gebhardt is the Director for EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center. The Center identifies financing approaches for public health and environmental goals by providing financial expertise to help communities make better-informed decisions about drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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