Money Talks, But Does It Swim?

President Obama put forward his proposed budget yesterday, which provides a rare opportunity to look at how the whole federal government is organized and what priorities our leaders see for investments.  On the whole, I think those of us who care about safe and sufficient water should be generally pleased with the administration’s direction, especially in the current economic context, but we also should call out a couple of missteps that the budget contains.  For present purposes, I’ve focused on EPA’s clean water initiatives; a summary of the agency’s budget priorities can be found here.  

First things first – EPA’s budget has to be viewed against the backdrop of the country’s fiscal troubles and the recent history of environmental funding.  Even in the best economic times, crafting the budget involves hard choices.  But today, when so many people are hurting, it is certainly understandable that the administration will want to make some cuts to programs, even ones that many of us support.  Moreover, even when the reductions contained in this budget proposal are taken into account, many programs will receive funding vastly above the amounts allotted to the same programs in the Bush administration.

That said, I’m concerned by the reductions proposed for the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water state revolving funds (each would take a $100 million hit, so that the overall amount would be reduced from $3.5 billion (FY 2010 enacted) to $3.3 billion).  Investments in infrastructure not only help ensure cleaner, more useable streams and other waters, and help utilities provide essential drinking water; they also create jobs, which we sorely need.  Cutting these funds is disappointing, as the unmet infrastructure need is enormous.  That’s why the Green Budget, which is compiled by a number of conservation groups, recommends funding these programs at a level of $4.5 billion.

We do, however, appreciate the administration's proposal to provide that 20 percent of the funding provided under the revolving funds should be directed to projects such as green infrastructure and water efficiency.  This recognizes that such investments have multiple benefits and can actually reduce infrastructure costs.

Apart from the big-ticket item of infrastructure investments, there are a number of other programs worth considering:

  • The President’s proposal would increase EPA’s funding for activities and regulatory improvements to help restore the Chesapeake Bay (specifically, it would increase the level by $13 million to $63 million).  This is welcome; the Chesapeake is a critical resource and it desperately needs federal leadership and action to ensure that nutrient and sediment pollution are brought under control. 
  • Funding to improve the Great Lakes would be cut substantially (from $475 million last year to $300 million), which is unfortunate; the administration has supported a 10-year, $5 billion plan to restore the Great Lakes.  More troublingly, even though the administration indicates that they will steer enhanced resources to “fighting incursion of Asian Carp,” a clear plan is need to ensure that this money is spent on establishing a permanent, long-term solution that will prevent the Asian carp from establishing itself in the Great Lakes.  For more detail, please check out the blog post my colleague Thom Cmar recently wrote about the need for real and immediate action.
  • The proposal to direct $17 million in new funding to an EPA program focused on reducing nutrient pollution from runoff in the Mississippi River basin is intriguing.  If done well, it could dovetail with the Department of Agriculture’s Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative.  Although these efforts are only just a beginning, it is critical that we start to rigorously implement and evaluate landscape management practices that could help address a long-neglected problem -- nutrient pollution and the resulting Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone," an issue I have discussed previously
  • EPA also addresses the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in its budget materials, but its discussion is dispiriting.  The agency essentially promises continued permit-by-permit negotiations with the Army Corps of Engineers and mine operators over the scope and impact of proposed mines and waste dumps.  What we need, however, is fundamental policy change – we need EPA and its sister agencies to act now to revise their regulations and get out of the business of authorizing the destruction of America’s waterways with mining waste.