President Obama's Budget Short-Changes Clean Water

Fishing in POTW effluent.JPG

President Obama recently released his administration’s budget, kicking off the annual national discussion about how to invest federal dollars.  Ultimately, this process will end in legislation that funds specific programs throughout the government for the fiscal year that begins in October.  I’ve taken a look the proposed budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (PDF) from a clean water perspective, and it’s disappointing. 


I took this picture recently of a couple of people fishing in Four Mile Run in Arlington, VA.  The flow in the foreground is from the Arlington Water Pollution Control Plant.  I'm guessing these anglers would support providing adequate funding to sewage treatment plants to meet water quality needs.


The bottom line is that if the President’s proposal were adopted, EPA’s efforts to protect the nation’s waterways would be cut by a little more than half a billion bucks.  That decision is hard to square with the administration’s acknowledgement that “America’s waters remain imperiled.” 

The single biggest proposed cut is to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides capital to state-managed funds that make low-interest loans available to municipalities for infrastructure projects, like needed upgrades to sewage treatment and stormwater management systems.  Increasingly, these funds are used to support green infrastructure projects, which include a suite of design approaches that reduce runoff from streets, parking lots, buildings and other hard surfaces by replicating natural conditions.  Despite the budget’s stated support for green infrastructure, though, the President would slash the grants to states for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund by almost $431 million.  President Obama would also cut the sister program – the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund – by about $150 million.

So, how does the administration justify failing to put its money where its mouth is?  As follows:

The Budget provides $1.8 billion for the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs), $581 million below the 2014 enacted level. The Budget proposes a reduction to focus on communities most in need of assistance and continuing to allow financing of approximately $6 billion annually in wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects. Nearly $60 billion has been provided for the programs to date, including over $21 billion since 2009. Going forward, EPA will continue efforts to target assistance to small and underserved communities that have a limited ability to repay loans, including Tribes.

Say again?  Reducing the funding to states to loan out for clean water projects will help “focus” on the communities that need help most?  Well, sure, just like cutting someone’s pay allows them to “focus” on eating, rather than eating and paying the rent. 

Even looking past the administration’s strange rationale, this decision still doesn’t hold up.  For one, the need for these funds is far greater than the investment we’ve made; according to EPA’s most recent needs assessment (PDF), for the 20-year period starting in January 2008, there was “a total need of $298.1 billion” with respect to wastewater, sewage overflows and stormwater, plus “other documented needs for nonpoint source pollution prevention ($22.8 billion) and decentralized/onsite wastewater systems ($23.9 billion)….”   For drinking water (PDF), there was an estimated “total national infrastructure need of $384.2 billion for the 20-year period from January 2011 through December 2030.”  Moreover, as our friends at the Blue-Green Alliance (PDF) have noted, “[e]very $1 billion invested in water infrastructure is estimated to create more than 20,000 new jobs.”  Given this context, providing significant support for the revolving funds is a no-brainer. 

At a much smaller dollar level, but in many ways equally dispiriting, President Obama has again (this is the third straight year) proposed to zero out funding for states -- usually around $10 million/year -- to operate programs to monitor coastal and Great Lakes beaches and notify the public when bacteria levels in the water indicate that it may not be safe to swim.  This proposal, which could leave some states unable to run their programs at all, is simply silly when you look at what it does for a relatively small investment.  As my colleague Steve Fleischli explained when the administration made this same proposal last year:

States do not have the financial resources to run these programs entirely on their own, without federal assistance. Though these small grants are less than Congress originally authorized, they represent critical investments in safeguards for our nation's $90 billion coastal tourism economy, which generates nearly 2 million jobs at more than 100,000 businesses each year.

Congress has repeatedly – and explicitly – rejected the President’s wrongheaded attempts to de-fund this program.  Here’s hoping it does so again.

EPA’s enforcement program also does not fare well in this budget.  Although the actual spending level is slated to increase somewhat, the agency would reduce its workforce in this area by 103 FTE (meaning “full-time equivalent,” essentially a single person doing a year’s work), or about three percent.  This appears to be part of EPA’s plan to shift to so-called “Next Generation” compliance tools, by which it means more partnership with industry, along with enhanced public information, to encourage compliance, and which feature prominently in the President’s budget explanation.  But as EPA’s recently-issued draft strategic plan reveals, this new approach to enforcement is bad news for clean water.  Specifically, EPA predicts far fewer pounds of pollution will be controlled – over the next five years, the agency expects enforcement actions under the alternative strategy to “reduce, treat, or eliminate” roughly 220 million pounds of water pollutants per year, while acknowledging that the annual average pollutant control for fiscal years 2005-2008 was 320 million pounds.

The EPA budget is not without any good news for clean water.  EPA grants to states to help them run their environmental programs – important activities like conducting site inspections and requiring pollution controls through discharge permits – would increase by $22.2 million for water.  In addition, the proposal would maintain needed funding for Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.  But if this budget is “about our values,” as President Obama says, then the President does not value clean water as much as he should.