In mid-April, hundreds of water professionals convened in Washington, D.C., to discuss their challenges, brainstorm solutions, and engage with their legislators — an event referred to as Water Week. While there, I had an opportunity to attend a panel at the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers’ Washington Forum that included several representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who gave an overview of the agency’s current priorities.
On the drinking water side, lead and infrastructure are at the top of the list, according to Peter Grevatt, director of EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water. “It’s a time of tremendous activity at EPA,” he noted. “We just recently completed our latest Needs Survey for drinking water projects and, between the drinking water side and the wastewater side, we’re now about $750 billion in need over the next 20 years.” He added that the wastewater Needs Survey is not as recent as the drinking water one, so that figure could well be an underestimate.
He acknowledged the current administration’s commitment to infrastructure, as evidence by the significant increase to the drinking water and clean water State Revolving Fund programs of $300 million each, as well as a near doubling of funding to the WIFIA program, in the most recent budget.
Grevatt highlighted EPA’s determined commitment to addressing the issue of lead contamination, noting Administrator Scott Pruitt’s recent declaration of a ‘War on Lead.’ “He really wants to get this job done and sees it as a continuing liability and a fundamental public health issue,” said Grevatt. He said that the agency is currently working through the comments it received on the proposed Lead and Copper Rule released last year. He also noted that the newest WIFIA funding announcement encourages projects that address lead. “It isn’t meant to narrow the eligibility in any way,” he said, “but to highlight projects that [the administrator] hopes will be coming in from folks in terms of letters of interest.”
EPA has a number of priorities on the wastewater side as well. One is a rulemaking effort around ‘blending,’ the practice of mixing excess, untreated wet weather flow with secondary treated effluent for disinfection prior to discharge. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, particularly in systems affected by combined or sanitary sewer overflow, but EPA wants to ensure that it happens in a way that is protective of human health. “We’ve done a fairly extensive public health analysis,” said Andrew Sawyers, director of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management, “and there is concern about viruses and pathogens that could impact people in areas near, or aquatic life in, receiving waters.” He said the agency hopes to have a rule drafted by the end of the year.
Another interesting topic getting EPA’s attention is the notion of ‘conduit theory,’ the idea that groundwater could act as a conveyance system for pollutants. As illustrated by a case in Maui whereby pollutants from underground storage wells migrated to the Pacific Ocean, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that a Clean Water Act permit was required. Sawyers noted that EPA issued a notice for comment in February, seeking feedback on whether pollutant discharges from point sources that reach jurisdictional surface waters via groundwater or other subsurface flow should be subject to CWA regulation. The comment period will be open until May 21. WW