EPA tweaks official water policy to invest in existing communities, save taxpayer money

Sewage treatment plant, originally uploaded by eutrophication&hypoxia.

Supported by encouragement and recommendations from Smart Growth America, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a new policy in late March to guide how billions in annual federal water funds should be used. The new guidance ensures that water facilities that communities depend on every day aren’t neglected in favor of running new systems out to undeveloped areas, saving taxpayer money in the process. (The programs covered by this guidance include the Clean and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds.)

According to reports by the EPA and Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nation faces a gap of hundreds of billions of dollars in funding clean and drinking water infrastructure repair and replacement all over the country.

Despite having the authority to do so, the EPA has traditionally done little in these programs to ensure that the money protects past investments and benefits existing communities. As a result, the money is often used to fund the construction of new systems or system expansions at the expense of systems servicing existing communities with dire need of repair and replacement. The result can be health hazards and higher repair costs in the long run.

“Aging systems in communities across the country are crumbling, creating a growing risk to both public health and the environment,” said SGA President Geoff Anderson shortly after the policy was released. “It’s should be common sense to prioritize these scarce taxpayer dollars into repairing and modernizing these systems that serve people living in already built areas, and we applaud EPA’s bold move to protect our water resources while saving taxpayer money.”

The Washington Post covered the new policy with a good story yesterday, including this interesting viewpoint:

Not surprisingly, the National Association of Home Builders has “serious concerns,” said its senior vice president, Susan Asmus. “While we recognize the need to repair, replace and upgrade existing infrastructure, this should not be done at the expense of new growth,” she said.

“We also can’t have the contrary, that new growth comes at the expense of existing communities — and that’s what we’re getting with this program now,” said Anderson. “Taxpayer money should protect previous public investments and go to maintaining the systems where taxpayers live.”

“We can’t rely on endless taxpayer subsidized extensions of a wastewater system that we can’t even afford to properly maintain now. The federal government has limited taxpayer dollars to use on water projects, and we need to make sure that those funds are used in the smartest and most responsible way, serving the most possible people per dollar and keeping existing water supplies safe and clean for the millions that depend on them each day.“

The EPA also referred to the 6 livability principles developed through the partnership between EPA, HUD and DOT to make the case for prioritizing repair, writing that states should not use the program to “encourage the expansion of centralized infrastructure to accommodate growth where there are available projects that repair, replace, and upgrade infrastructure in existing communities.”

This may seem like a wonky, minute change in policy, but with $3.3 billion in these funds doled out each year, it will make a tangible difference in communities across the country, modernize existing water infrastructure that serves millions, and save us money now and in the long run. Now that’s smart growth.

Smart Growth America has been working with national partners such as American Rivers, River Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council to urge EPA to change this policy.