U.S. moves toward localized water sector regulation

March 1, 2018
EPA’s strategic plan to restore power to states through cooperative federalism and refocus on its statutory legal obligations is moving the agency into a support role and triggering a more localized approach in the way environmental and water policy is being delivered.

By Paul O’Callaghan

Regulations and enforcement of regulations are the key factors that drive and influence the adoption of water technologies. The regulatory environment signals potential markets and gives vendors advance notice of the potential size of the market for particular technology areas and indicates which players will be affected.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Draft FY 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, Public Review Draft released on October 2, 2017, the agency is returning to its core mission: restoring power to the states through cooperative federalism and refocusing on its statutory legal obligations. The strategic plan moves EPA into a role of supporting states and tribes and is triggering a more localized approach in the way environmental and water policy is being delivered.

So, it is not surprising that water policy specialist Sally Gutierrez and Barry Liner, WEF’s chief technical officer and director of WEF think-tank, the Water Science & Engineering Center, hosted one of the most popular roundtables at the BlueTech Forum 2017 in Dublin. They are back with their roundtable on Regulations and Policy at BlueTech Forum 2018, which takes place June 6-7 in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

Reflecting on the Dublin event, Gutierrez said, “There is a lot of interest in the policy landscape, which may be driven by the fact that we had and still have a fairly new government administration. There has been a lot of talk about regulatory and policy changes.”

Liner added, “Delegates were interested in nutrient permitting and the difference between point-source and non-point-source nutrient control. In the U.S. there are upcoming regulation and implementation strategies on the removal of nitrogen and phosphorus from surface water bodies and maximum daily load in rivers, watersheds and bays. The industry needs to know how that might impact the technology.”

Liner said those attending the roundtable wanted to know how tight the limits might be for wastewater facilities and how that might impact the equipment technology markets. “Another hot topic was water reuse and how the EPA is handling regulations on potable reuse and how that affects the technology market, not necessarily from the compliance side for the utility but from the investor perspective,” he added.

There is a lot of interest in the policy landscape, which may be driven by the fact that we had and still have a fairly new government administration.

—Sally Gutierrez,
Water Policy Specialist

Unregulated Contaminants

Looking forward, Gutierrez and Liner said there are several issues on the horizon in the U.S. market, including a number of unregulated contaminants that urgently need addressing, such as perfluorinated compounds and the presence of lead in drinking water.

“Since the public health emergency in Flint, Mich., lead in drinking water has been the subject of much interest,” said Gutierrez. “One of the interesting things going on in communities — around water systems — is that they’re looking at ways to mitigate some of these contaminants even where there haven’t been any firm and fast regulations.”

The issues go far beyond the regulations, she said. “For example, current compliance strategies dictate measurement for the presence of lead in the distribution system, but not necessarily every single household that may have lead service lines in their actual home.”

Legionella is another very serious public health concern, noted Gutierrez and Liner. It is a potential cause of illness and even death among susceptible populations and currently the U.S. does not have regulations. There are a number of research studies underway on the topic.

“What you see, though, is water systems and solutions providers trying to address the problem even though it’s not within the regulatory construct — and may not be for 10 years or more,” said Gutierrez.

Community Action

Gutierrez believes that where action is required on issues not covered by federal legislation, more action is going to take place at state and community levels — and sometimes without the full backing of the federal government. This variation will create a complex landscape for vendors to navigate.

“Investors and technologists will move into markets where you do have these requirements in place,” she noted. “It has happened in California with water reuse and efficiency and much activity there is now due to the state making decisions. California is leading on this state-led, individualized approach.”

Liner agreed and said that where California leads, others are likely to follow. “People often think the U.S. is one place when it’s really 50 states. The leadership of some of these states will bring others along.”

Liner pointed to New Jersey’s recent passage of legislation on the requirement for asset management, which is based on an approach rather than a technology. He said a number of other states are looking at that legislation to see whether they might model something on the N.J. action.

“It took N.J. jumping out there for the other ones to move and I think those are important examples of how the states are leading the way, not necessarily the federal government.”

People often think the U.S. is one place when it’s really 50 states. The leadership of some of these states will bring others along.

— Barry Liner,
WEF Water Science &
Engineering Center

Regulatory Drivers

Regulations are important drivers in the development and adoption of water technology. Liner gave the example of the multi-agency clean-up of Chesapeake Bay, the world’s largest estuary, in the 1980s and 1990s. The EPA had to work with six states and the District of Colombia to eliminate dead zones in this great surface water body.

“One important aspect of the Chesapeake Bay clean-up was nutrient removal in wastewater treatment facilities — and that required a lot of investment in research and development. People said there was no way we could do it. Now we know that the R&D led to advances in biological nutrient removal and enhanced nutrient removal on an order of magnitude better than anyone had predicted.”

Liner continued, “We’re seeing a lot of new technologies grow up all over the world that evolved from the biological treatment research boom that started with the regulatory demands to clean up surface water, such as the effort in Chesapeake Bay, over the past 20-30 years. Examples include granular activated sludge technologies like Annamox and Nereda from the Netherlands.”

Alongside potable reuse, nutrient removal, legionella and lead in household pipes, Liner also expects to see major growth in green infrastructure to manage stormwater. However, the journey from initial research to full implementation of new regulation can take decades and where climate change is hastening environmental change, federal action may not be fast enough.

“Communities are taking the lead because climate change impacts are at a local level,” Liner said. “We’re seeing a lot more advances occurring that are not reliant on federal government action. In Miami and south Florida, they’re well ahead. They’re not debating any of the climate science because the sea level is rising on them and they’ve got to take care of it.” WW

Author’s Note: Sally Gutierrez and Barry Liner will host the roundtable on Regulations and Policy at BlueTech Forum 2018. For more information, visit www.bluetechforum.com.

About the Author: Paul O’Callaghan is chief executive of BlueTech Research, a consultancy that provides investors, water companies, researchers and regulators with clarity and critical analysis on emerging water technology market areas.