Mehan's Legacy one of Changing Paradigms for Water

G. Tracy Mehan sits quietly and listens thoughtfully. You don't know it at first but slowly you get the sense you are in the presence of a courageous public servant.

Jan 1st, 2004

By Craig Lindell

G. Tracy Mehan sits quietly and listens thoughtfully. You don't know it at first but slowly you get the sense you are in the presence of a courageous public servant. His service in Washington was brief, but much like his Nation's founders, he is leaving a pathway to change that is authentically American.

Shortly after his arrival in Washington in 2001 to serve as Assistant Administrator of Water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mehan established a new expectation for the EPA and the country. It leaps from the middle of his presentation to the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee on November 30, 2001, "Building on Success – Going Beyond Regulation",

• "Times have changed dramatically since the existing regulatory framework was put in place."
• "Point source controls alone are not capable of achieving or maintaining ambient environmental standards."
• "The assimilative capacity of our environment is limited and the technological and economic limitations of our existing regulatory framework are at hand."
• "The remaining water pollution problems are significantly more complex when compared with the problems that we have already addressed."
• "Complex problems require innovative solutions and entail a change in paradigm."

What makes Tracy Mehan so compelling is the pragmatic basis for his challenge and the range of his resolve. His reference to the "change in paradigm" has enormous implications. It challenges the cultural foundations of our institutions.

Consider wastewater treatment. Neither the onsite nor the NPDES codes are sufficient to address integrated water resource and watershed management. Focused on prescriptive, command and control solutions for safe disposal and the reduction of contaminants, they do not provide for what Mehan identifies as the "limits (of the) assimilative capacity of the environment."

Neither do they address the complexities of non-point pollution, water recharge and reuse, or the sustaining of natural systems that are essential to sustaining water supply and quality. They do not provide the flexibility to address watershed-based affordable solutions (environmental results). They provide no basis for managing nutrient loading to coastal zones or the use of new planning tools like the principles of community preservation.

Mehan's call for a "change in paradigm" is the recognition that "the emperor has no clothes." It is the capacity to see that the "solutions of 30 years ago and the cultural heritage that produced them are not sufficient to address the new world of water." It is the courage to suggest that the NPDES and public health codes are part of the problem.

Mehan is on this same theme when he suggests that the legal structure is not available in the Clean Water Act for a frontal assault on nonpoint pollution, and that may be a clue that we should use different tools for nonpoint pollution than we used for point source problems.

Vindication of his labor was evident in early December when the new EPA Administrator, Mike Leavitt, stated in his first public speech that his will be an aggressive and flexible EPA; that compliance is essential, but so is the affordability of solutions, collaboration for achieving them, and an aggressive pace for responsible reform.

"More. Better. Faster. Newer. That's the tune you will hear from me.

"I envision a new wave (read "change in paradigm") of national environmental productivity beginning in America. It is emerging not from new legislative initiatives but from people joining together in collaborative networks for environmental teamwork.

"No matter the size, they all need a convener of stature with the skills and resources to help them start. This is a new sociology (read "change in paradigm"); many of these are enabled by new technology.

"The Environmental Protection Agency can step forward boldly as a convener of such collaborative networks. We can help connect the players across national, state and community boundaries and assist in getting them started, provide resources and in some cases, get out of the way."

WWEMA was saddened to learn of Mehan's decision to resign his post at EPA. His moment in Washington was brief and he will probably be overlooked by the historians. However, from this industry's perspective, Mehan was one of those rare people who has both the personal insight and the public trust to create new standing ground from which to challenge the dominant "paradigm".

About the author:
Craig Lindell is a member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) Board of Directors and is president of Aquapoint, a wastewater treatment company focused on distributed performance-based wastewater management systems.

More in Home