Four More Years - Water Industry Impact

As President Bush begins another four-year term in office, I thought it would be a good time to consider whether his presidency and a strongly Republican-controlled Congress will have any impact on the water industry.

by James Laughlin

As President Bush begins another four-year term in office, I thought it would be a good time to consider whether his presidency and a strongly Republican-controlled Congress will have any impact on the water industry.

In truth, I don't really know. Environmentalists, of course, are predicting a roll-back in environmental protection and reduced enforcement. Conservative and business interests are hoping for an era of "enlightened" environmental policies that will not stand in the way of business.

Shortly after the election dust began to settle, EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt was quoted as saying, "The election was a validation of the philosophy and the agenda," of the Bush administration. Environmental protection, he said, must be done "in a way that maintains the economic competitiveness of the country."

Congress and the Bush administration are expected to move ahead with an environmental agenda that will focus on revamping laws on air pollution and endangered species and reviving an energy bill that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.

On the water front, the administration has said it intends to provide significant funding for the preservation of wetlands and wildlife habitats. The White House also is planning a new effort to clean up the Great Lakes.

Despite the administration's announced environmental goals, environmentalist groups are predicting a sweeping overhaul of the nation's 30-year-old system of environmental protections.

"They are trying to shred the environmental safety net," Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, was quoted in the LA Times. Pope predicted renewed efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Environmentalist concerns aside, there are a host of new and updated regulations for the drinking water and wastewater industry already making their way through the system. The only real question is at what speed they will move toward promulgation. The EPA is not noted for its swift movement on new regulations. Having an administration viewed as less-than-strong on the environment, and regulation in general, probably won't speed up that process.

New regulations that could hit the industry within the next year or so include the oft-delayed final Groundwater Rule and the final LT2ESWTR and Stage 2 DBPR. EPA is also considering revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule and the Total Coliform Rule, among others.

Another issue is funding, which is very much on the minds of everyone in the water industry. Congress has over the last few years overridden the administration's attempts to cut the SRF program. This year, for the first time, the House has approved a measure to trim the SRF program. It is unclear what impact Bush's victory at the polls will have, if any, on the fate of the SRF.

So what does any of this mean? If I were a betting man, I would say over the next four years we will see less Federal funding, fewer new regulations and a reduction in enforcement. While the cuts in funding might hurt some, reduced regulation and enforcement should be good news for people working at water utilities. Cash-strapped utilities already hard-pressed in dealing with an aging infrastructure certainly could use a little breathing room on the regulation/enforcement front.

James Laughlin, Editor

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