Trump Budget Short-Changes Water Safeguards

The White House released its proposed federal government budget this week and it’s a plan only water polluters can love. If followed, it would mean more polluted drinking water supplies, make restoring the fisheries of the Chesapeake Bay and other waters harder, delay needed fixes to failing sewer systems, stop work to monitor beach water quality and warn beach-goers about conditions that can make them sick, and starve state pollution control programs.

What’s extra bananas about this plan is that the administration would gut states’ and tribes’ capacity to adequately control and clean up pollution while also launching several rollback efforts that would weaken federal requirements and impose more of the responsibility for ensuring clean water on those very same states and tribes. So, states and tribes will have less money but more responsibility to keep our waterways safe and clean.  

Despite frequently claiming it will lead a massive renewal of America’s infrastructure, the administration proposes to cut federal funding for water infrastructure. Specifically, it would reduce the State Revolving Fund programs, which are the primary vehicles by which the federal government supports investments in wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, by a total of about $874 million. Moreover, the budget’s fact sheet about the administration’s plan for infrastructure improvements is a re-tread of the wrongheaded scheme it rolled out last year, which my colleague Becky Hammer took apart in a series of posts.

At EPA, the budget would cut numerous federal programs that help keep the waterways we cherish clean or restore them to good health. The core water protection program at the agency—which establishes industry pollution limits, conducts national scientific reviews, and oversees state permitting and other water quality programs, would be cut by more than $11 million. The budget would also cut more than $36 million (about 34 percent) from the research operations at EPA, which the budget document itself acknowledges are doing critical work:

As bad as the cuts to EPA would be, the budget’s proposed attacks on state and tribal funding could well be even more dangerous. State and tribes do the bulk of the day-to-day work of keeping the nation’s waters safe, but this budget would make their job nearly impossible. First, the administration would cut one-third (more than $77 million) of the funding that states and tribes receive to monitor their waters and run their core programs, like pollution control permitting and enforcement. Second, the budget would eliminate all of the $16.8 million that pollution control agencies receive for basic research needs, such as determining what levels of pollution water bodies can tolerate and still allow for safe swimming or fish consumption. Third, the White House proposes to entirely eliminate the roughly $171 million in federal funding for state and tribal “non-point” source pollution control programs, though EPA touts the success of the program in restoring water bodies. Fourth, the proposal would slash support for state/tribal wetland protection programs by a third. And, fifth, the budget would eliminate funding for state/tribal beach monitoring and contamination notification efforts, putting public health at risk.

All of this comes on top of efforts by the Trump administration to weaken federal clean water requirements and give polluters free rein to harm many streams and wetlands across the country.

The recently-proposed “Dirty Water Rule” would eliminate federal protections for a huge amount of the nation’s streams and wetlands. The administration has justified this by claiming that many states and tribes will fill the void.

In addition, the Trump administration would take a meat axe to programs designed to restore iconic waters around the country. It would slash $65.7 million from the Chesapeake Bay, and $270 million from the Great Lakes, leaving those watersheds with only 10 percent of their recent annual funding. Other places would lose all of their funding, including Long Island Sound, the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound, Lake Champlain, and more. Because this funding supports multi-year, multi-jurisdiction restoration plans, the federal government abandoning its role in these efforts could lead to wasting substantial investments and letting those special waters degrade. In the same vein, the budget would eliminate the entire $26.7 million annual support provided to the National Estuary Program, which promotes the development and implementation of management plans to maintain and restore watersheds feeding 28 nationally significant estuaries. Cutting these targeted watershed initiatives is not only wasteful, it’s dumb—these programs have demonstrably improved watersheds by funding important on-the-ground projects.

Finally, the budget proposal senselessly attacks two programs that help under-served communities provide basic wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. It would cut the program targeting Alaska Native village needs from $20 million to $3 million, and it would eliminate support for projects on the Mexico border.

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If past is prologue, most of these reckless cuts will be rejected on a bipartisan basis in Congress. But it makes one wonder how the Trump EPA will use any funds it receives. In light of recent evidence of a major downturn in federal enforcement, to say nothing of the blizzard of EPA actions weakening federal pollution requirements, Congress should not only fully fund clean water programs, but also rigorously oversee the agency’s operations to make sure it actively implements those programs.

About the Authors

Jon Devine

Director, Federal Water Policy, Water Division, Nature Program

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