The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing new Financial Capabilities Assessment guidance for establishing a community’s ability to fund clean water controls for both permitting and enforcement as it pertains to Clean Water Act compliance. It is imperative that EPA do everything in its power to bring all communities into compliance with the Clean Water Act regardless of financial capability. Instead of simply imposing requirements, the agency must prioritize directing resources and funding, without compromising or lowering water quality standards.
Giving municipalities a way out of complying with clean water laws is by no means a good outcome for those communities. Similarly, granting long compliance deadlines or lowering water quality standards only moves the goal posts and does nothing to actually improve water quality. This approach may save a few dollars in the short term, but it is not in any community’s long-term best interest, be it financial or otherwise, to have an imparied waterway.
Typically, these types of Clean Water Act requirements relate to combined sewer overflow (CSO) events, which happens when stormwater mixes with raw sewage before discharging the combination of the two into a nearby waterbody. CSO events are a huge contributor to violations of water quality standards, especially in urban areas. They pose a significant threat to public health and the environment, which is why EPA requires municipalities that have CSO events implement control measures to lessen the pollutant loads.
Now is not the time to lower standards!
Climate change is bringing more extreme weather, making CSO events more and more common. Now is the time to make investments in waste water treatment, stormwater mitigation, gray and green infrastructure, and other measures to eliminate CSO discharges, and protect the health of American waterways.
Using financial limitations to justify not cleaning up the environment only worsens environmental impacts for these communities in the long term. It can also make them less prosperous and less healthy. Delaying compliance, though it may be intended to help communities of color or low-income residents, might actually have the opposite effect if it delays addressing water pollution in their communities.
When developing timelines and schedules for communities to meet Clean Water Act standards, financial capability must be considered alongside public health, environmental justice, and other impacts, as well as the availability of federal resources and funding. Furthermore, we must not only look at one community when making a decision that will ultimately affect other surrounding communities that are downstream from uncontrolled pollution discharges.
Instead, EPA should take advantage of this historic moment in federal investment — be it from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and other funding — to provide support for our communities and their waterways.
The new guidance proposed by EPA is a step in the right direction, but it must go further.
Specifically, the guidance must:
- Drive solutions that achieve both affordability and clean water,
- Prioritize resources, investment, and support for communities, particularly communities of color and low-income communities that are disproportionately impacted by uncontrolled pollution
- Consider all the benefits of compliance with the Clean Water Act when performing analyses
- Not use financial limitations to weaken water quality standards or move the goal posts by using the guidance to amend water quality regulations
- Robustly encourage community engagement whenever cost and affordability are being evaluated with regard to Clean Water Act compliance
It is vital that all communities, regardless of income level, are afforded the protections of the Clean Water Act.