There’s a common saying in Washington: “A budget is a moral document.” Seen through that lens, the Trump administration’s budget is a deeply immoral plan for national water policy. This proposal would make radical and deep cuts to numerous critical water initiatives. I suppose this should not be surprising, in light of the dirty water agenda President Trump and EPA Administrator (and first-class-loving world-traveler) Scott Pruitt have recklessly pursued for the past year, but it’s no less sad. So, while Congress is all but certain to pursue a different approach, it’s important to consider the choices this administration would make if it could.
The Trump/Pruitt plan would cut funding to states and tribes for day-to-day pollution control, slash funding needed to hold polluters accountable, and eliminate programs to restore the health of treasured waters from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Champlain. Programs that let families know if it’s safe to swim at the beach would also be terminated.
Each of these attacks alone are dangerous, but when you think about what they might mean in combination, it gets really scary. For example, as I lay out below, the budget fails to adequately fund needed upgrades in water infrastructure, meaning that wastewater systems across the country will be less able to fix leaky or outmoded facilities that cause discharges of sewage laden with bacteria and viruses. And the Trump/Pruitt budget would slash funding for both EPA and state pollution control offices, so that the same sewage plant is more likely to be able to avoid state or federal inspections or enforcement that could help ensure the facility is meeting bacteria limits in its permit or notifying people of a sewage spill. Then, to make matters worse, beach monitoring and public notification programs along the coasts and Great Lakes would lose critical operating funds, so that people will be less aware of the sickness-causing pathogens in the water.
Before getting into the murky details, it’s worth considering general observations about the EPA’s budget.
If the Trump/Pruitt proposal were actually followed, EPA would be absolutely incapable of doing its job. The budget recommends cutting the agency’s funding by almost a quarter compared with current levels (which already reflects several years of diminished support for the agency), and reducing the number of EPA employees dramatically, as reflected in the chart below.
Starved for resources and people, EPA’s performance of its core responsibilities would suffer. Take law enforcement—the budget proposal would shrink civil enforcement funding by about 17.5% (cut from $173.9 million to $143.5 million), and its criminal enforcement budget would be cut by about 8 percent (cut from $52.5 million to $48.2 million). That means more polluters getting away with more harm to our communities and the natural places we depend on.
And the news gets no better when one looks at the water-specific proposals in the Trump/Pruitt budget.
Short-Changing Water Infrastructure Investment
Although the administration talks big about fixing and modernizing the nation’s infrastructure, its recently-unveiled scheme failed miserably. The budget’s inadequate investment in water infrastructure likewise gives the lie to the administration’s claim to care about solving the crisis of crumbling infrastructure.
EPA’s budget contains a less than 1 percent increase in each of the State Revolving Fund programs, which are the primary vehicles by which the federal government supports investments in wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. The proposed Clean Water grants to states’ revolving funds comes in just shy of $1.394 billion, and the Drinking Water Revolving Fund grants would be about $863 million.
But even that apparently level funding comes with two significant caveats that reveal the Trump administration’s claimed commitment to supporting water infrastructure to be little more than empty rhetoric. First, as indicated in the initial summary of the proposal, the administration actually wanted to cut support for the Clean Water SRF to less than $1 billion, and only grudgingly included the higher figure after Congress reached an agreement to increase spending caps for the current and next fiscal year. In fact, the administration pushed Congress to go with the lower figure, saying that it “does not believe these non-defense spending levels comport with its vision for the proper role and size of the Federal Government.” Second, this level of commitment to infrastructure funding through EPA should be considered alongside proposed cuts to the Department of Agriculture’s rural water and waste disposal programs, which also supports water infrastructure development; the budget proposes to cut $505 million in grants and $52 million in guaranteed loans from that USDA program.
Message to States, Tribes, and Struggling Communities: You’re on Your Own
The budget would cut by 33 percent the grants that EPA provides to states and tribes under the Clean Water Act. State and tribal governments use these funds to operate their day-to-day pollution control programs, as the law envisions that they will typically take the lead. Clean Water Act funds enable states to issue permits to discharge, in accordance with industry-wide pollution limits and water-quality standards. States also use this support to develop cleanup targets for polluted waters and to evaluate the condition of waterways in their states.
The Trump administration would also zero out funding for the Clean Water Act program dedicated to helping control pollution from so-called “nonpoint sources,” such as runoff from agricultural fields. This approach ignores EPA’s own statements attesting to how valuable the program has been, including numerous EPA-identified success stories, and the agency’s conclusion that the program helped lead to 718 water bodies being fully or partially restored.
And the axe keeps swinging—the Trump/Pruitt budget cuts EPA funding for state wetlands program development by 33 percent. That program supports wetland condition assessments, enables states to set water quality standards for wetlands, and funds voluntary restoration efforts.
Trump and Pruitt also would terminate funding to states for beach monitoring and public notification programs, which help people know about risks of waterborne illnesses from swimming in contaminated water.
All told, EPA’s grants to state and tribal governments for programmatic work would be cut by a whopping 61 percent, as depicted in the chart below.
Gutting Federal Water Program Implementation
Programs run out by EPA itself fare no better than state-led efforts. The Trump/Pruitt budget would cut EPA’s basic program administration and implementation budget for water by 12%, from $199 million to $175 million. These funds pay for the staff and technical capacity to review state standards, develop industry discharge limits, and oversee numerous federally-led pollution control programs.
The administration also attacks several watershed-focused improvement programs. It eliminates most of them (including ones aimed at the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Champlain, Long Island Sound, and Puget Sound, to name a few) and cuts the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes Restoration efforts each by roughly 90%. These programs entail multi-year, multi-jurisdiction restoration plans, and if the federal government abandons its role in these efforts, it risks wasting substantial investments and letting those iconic waters degrade.
The Trump/Pruitt scheme also would not fund the National Estuary Program, which promotes the development and implementation of management plans to maintain and restore watersheds feeding 28 nationally significant estuaries. Similarly, it would provide no funding for the popular and successful WaterSense voluntary labeling program, which helps consumers and businesses identify products that meet the program’s water-efficiency and performance criteria.
Finally, and perhaps most hypocritically, the budget would slash funding for basic water infrastructure construction in Alaska Native Villages by 85% (from $19.9 million to $3 million), and zero out a similar program along the U.S.-Mexico border. This is hard to square with the document’s acknowledgment (p. 19) that “[t]ens of thousands of homes, primarily in tribal and disadvantaged communities and the territories, lack access to basic sanitation and drinking water,” but it’s very consistent with the Trump/Pruitt approach of pretending to care about water quality and community health while pursuing policies that abandon those values.