Local Water, the EPA: Beyond Goodsprings

Water Faucet EPA

The Reno Gazette Journal reports that there are 23 local water systems in Nevada which are not in compliance with drinking water standards (there are currently 22, but more on that later).  Three local systems listed in the article have lead contamination levels exceeding the lead standard, 15 ppb (parts per billion) as the “action level.”  The public needs this information. However, the agency responsible for establishing the maximum contaminant level (MCL) standards is the whipping boy of choice for the Republican Party.  In short – it really doesn’t do to get up in arms about water or air pollution levels and then call for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The regulatory system isn’t all that complicated. The EPA establishes the standards and then it’s up to the states to devise the implementation.  There’s a reason for this. Setting national standards means that states can’t compete in a ‘race to the bottom’ in which some states seek to attract industry by lowering standards until they are in competition to achieve the status of “Worse Than Any Pig Would Ever Consider in a Sty.”  And, potentially damaging everyone else’s air and water in the process.  However, this hasn’t stopped Over-Hyped Demagogue Donald Trump from calling for handing over environmental regulation to the individual states.  [WaPo]

Nor has this made much of an impression on Seven Mountain Dominionist Ted Cruz; “Cruz has called the EPA a “radical” agency that has imposed “illegal” limits on greenhouse gases from power plants. “I think states should press back using every tool they have available,” the Texas senator has said. “We’ve got to rein in a lawless executive that is abusing its power.” [WaPo]

Ohio Governor John Kasich has been critical of the Michigan attempts to address its man-made, GOP inspired, water quality issues in Flint, MI, but hasn’t been on top of the situation with the Sebring, OH water contamination. [TP]

The 2008 Republican national platform was exceptionally mealy-mouthed about environmental protection:

“Our national progress toward cleaner air and water has been a major accomplishment of the American people. By balancing environmental goals with economic growth and job creation, our diverse economy has made possible the investment needed to safeguard natural resources, protect endangered species, and create healthier living conditions. State and local initiatives to clean up contaminated sites — brownfields — have exceeded efforts directed by Washington. That progress can continue if grounded in sound science, long-term planning, and a multiuse approach to resources.”

It’s not likely that much more will come from a 2016 version.   Nor should we expect much in the way of support for addressing the national problems associated with our drinking water systems.  Remember the ASCE’s Report Card on American Infrastructure (2013)?

“At dawn of the 21st century, much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA). The quality of drinking water in the United States remains universally high, however. Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare.”

Not to put too fine a point to it, but as a nation we’re running on a Run-to-Ruin system in which local water distributors are functioning with outdated infrastructure while trying to maintain acceptable levels of quality.  Goodsprings Elementary School offers us an example of what can happen given a 1913 building and 21st century water quality standards. [RGJ]  If Goodsprings was an isolated example, then we could address the aging pipes and move on, but it’s not that isolated, nor that uncommon.  Current EPA estimates indicate we are having to replace between 4,000 and 5,000 miles of drinking water mains in this country on an annual basis, and that the annual replacement rate will peak sometime around 2035 with 16,000 and 20,000 miles of aging pipe needing to be replaced each year. [ASCE]

Putting The Public Back In Public Utility

I am going to start with some basic assumptions. First, that a family or person should be able to move to any part of this great land and expect to find clean water running from the faucet.  Secondly, that it is not a good idea to allow individual states to set drinking water standards, since some might find it inconvenient or inexpedient to set scientifically reliable standards in the interest of “development” or “industrialization.”  Such a piece meal approach would put paid to the first basic assumption.   So, if we’re agreed that any person in this country should have a reasonable expectation of clean drinking water then we need national standards.

Some of the standards are easier than others.  Arsenic contamination levels offer an example of a complex problem with some nuanced related issues.  The MCL (maximum contaminant level) for arsenic was lowered in 2001 from 50 ppb to 10 ppb. Public water systems were to be in compliance by January 23, 2006. [EPA] [More information at FAS pdf] The Reno Gazette Journal reports ten Nevada water systems not in compliance.  One, the McDermitt GID has recently been declared in compliance with a current projected annual running average below 10 ppb after the system put in a new central well.

Arsenic enters the drinking water systems one of two ways, either through industrial activity or as a naturally occurring contaminant.  If the system is west of the Rocky Mountains it’s a reasonably good bet that the arsenic is naturally occurring.  It’s probably not too far off the mark to say that if the standard were set at 15 ppb most Nevada water systems would be in compliance, but the standard is 10 and that’s ultimately what matters.

The smaller public water systems have more trouble meeting the standards than the larger ones, as described by the BSDW:  “The smaller systems are the ones that tend to struggle with regaining compliance because they typically have limited financial resources so we have to collectively figure out ways to help that community get back to compliance,” said Jennifer Carr, NDEP deputy administrator. “Larger systems such as TMWA also have more personnel to tackle projects whereas some of our smaller water systems are operated by one person who might be doing another side job.” [RGJ]

And, now we’re down to the gritty part: Where does the money come from to resolve contaminant problems with arsenic? Or, for that matter, other water infrastructure issues?    The State Revolving Fund provides low interest loans for water infrastructure projects in the state; and can in some circumstances offer “forgiven” loans to small public water services.  The “bottom line” is that in 2016 there will be a need for approximately $279 million for arsenic treatment, groundwater treatment, storage tank replacements, metering systems, and distribution lines in Nevada.  And, the worse news, “Not all will be funded.” [KTVN]

The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund was created in 1996 to support water systems and state safe water programs.  “The 51 DWSRF programs function like infrastructure banks by providing low interest loans to eligible recipients for drinking water infrastructure projects. As money is paid back into the state’s revolving loan fund, the state makes new loans to other recipients. These recycled repayments of loan principal and interest earnings allow the state’s DWSRF to “revolve” over time.”  [EPA]   As of 2014 this system had provided $27.9 billion to water suppliers to improve drinking water treatment, improve sources of drinking water, providing safe storage tanks, fixing leaking or aging distribution pipe, and other projects to protect public health. [EPA] The EPA estimates that small public water systems nationwide, those serving populations less than 3,330,  will need approximately $64.5 billion for infrastructure needs. [EPA 5th report pdf]

What was the Republican controlled Congress’s response? They may have avoided a shutdown, but the waters weren’t exactly flowing:

The bill provides $863.2 million for the DWSRF  well below President Obama’s request of $1.186 billion and more than $40 million below the programs FY2015 appropriation.While the figure represents the lowest DWSRF appropriation in several years, it is significantly above the FY16 funding levels originally proposed by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, each of which would have cut DWSRF funding to below $780 million. [UIM]

What have we learned?

  • The Republican candidates for the presidency show little to no enthusiasm for infrastructure investments in general, and beyond bemoaning the state of Flint’s water system which must be someone’s fault “just not ours,” even less enthusiasm for funding local drinking water improvement projects.
  • The Republicans in Congress were only too happy to cut funding for the best source for local public water companies projects, in the name of “fiscal responsibility” – meaning, one could think, that preserving tax cuts for the rich is preferable to providing clean drinking water to everyone.
  • The infrastructure needs in this country are serious and go well beyond fixing bridges and filling pot-holes.  This, and we’ve not yet reached the peak of distribution line replacement needs coming up in the next 20 years.
  • “Austerity” is a lovely buzz word, and “We’d love to do it but we just can’t afford to” is a fine campaign trail stump speech phrase, but these won’t keep the water coming from the tap clean and safe.  We need to stop thinking of our infrastructure as an expense and begin to consider it for what it is – an investment; an investment in the capacity of our cities and towns to provide basic services so that economic activity can take place.
  • And, NO it isn’t a good idea to abolish the EPA.

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