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Obama : Water issues seen as likely priorities
By Katherine Boyle, courtesy Greenwire
Nov 17, 2008
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Greenwire -- US EPA’s efforts to improve water-treatment infrastructure, regulate emerging contaminants and protect wetlands are likely to grow in an Obama administration that has vowed to make climate change a top priority.

EPA’s outgoing water administrator, Benjamin Grumbles, 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 in an interview. “It is a core part of both the cause and the effects of climate change.”

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

The Bush White House recently threatened to veto House plans for an economic recovery package funding infrastructure projects, potentially punting the issue to Obama and the 111th Congress. Obama said last week that passage of a $60 billion to $100 billion economic stimulus package would be a top priority following his inauguration if President Bush and lawmakers do not come to an agreement in the lame-duck session (E&ENews PM, Nov. 7).

Federal funding for infrastructure has declined 70 percent 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.”

George Hawkins, director of the District of Columbia’s Environment Department, said he’d like the Obama administration to provide directions for cities looking to green their water infrastructure and to work to change the Clean Water Act — written in the 1970s largely to address industrial discharges — to address stormwater runoff that fouls urban waterways.

“The Democratic Congress bodes well for changing the statutes,” he said.

The statute should address infrastructure changes like green roofs, rain barrels and green development, Hawkins said. “There should be credit, in a regulatory structure, for building in a city, not a farm field,” he said.

The advocacy group American Rivers has pushed for more green infrastructure funding as a cost-efficient approach to cleaning up waterways.

Drinking water

Monitoring pharmaceuticals and contaminants like perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, 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.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation aimed at limiting the amount of the perchlorate in drinking water and requiring some public water systems to monitor it and inform the public of any contamination. The Bush administration objected to the legislation, asking senators to give the agency more time to complete analyses aimed at improving detection of the chemical and developing strategies to address it (E&E Daily).

Environmentalists have long sought regulation of perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, which can inhibit the thyroid gland’s iodine uptake and interfere with fetuses’ development. They also 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 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.”

Wetlands

Environmentalists also have high hopes that 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.

Feingold’s legislation “is really critical to protecting even the largest streams,” Stoner said. “You have to protect the feeder streams in order to protect the big ones.”

“We’re hoping to have a more friendly audience” in Congress and at EPA, she said.

The agency has come under fire in recent months after a memo surfaced revealing that EPA’s enforcement of Clean Water Act violations had declined due to jurisdictional uncertainty created by the Supreme Court’s 2006 Rapanos-Carabell decision and an EPA-Army Corps of Engineers guidance.

Grumbles predicted that the new administration, as well, will be forced to grapple with thorny issues from the Rapanos fallout. “We’ve made progress on that front, but I think Congress needs to remain very much involved,” he said. “The next administration also needs to continue to work for increasing the clarity and the consistency of what is and isn’t covered.”

Advocates for Feingold’s bill argue that prior to the court’s Rapanos decision and 2001 Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision, the phrase “navigable waters” had been broadly defined as “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” They say the legislation would restore that definition.

Opponents, including Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.), however, say the bill would expand wetland protections beyond the intent of the Clean Water Act and could lead to a spate of lawsuits (E&E Daily, July 8).

Despite Republican opposition in the Senate, H.R. 2421, a companion bill by the chairman of the House Transportation panel, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), received some bipartisan support in the House this summer. Democratic gains in that chamber should only increase its chances of passing next session.



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