EPA Administrator Says Nation Must Prepare For Climate Change, Fight Nutrient Pollution

By Amena H. Saiyid

Sept. 29 — Tackling nutrient pollution, shoring up water infrastructure, and preparing communities for climate change and extreme weather events are among the most significant environmental challenges facing the country today, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator said Sept. 29.

“Our health and economy and way of life depend on clean water and that is what this conference is all about,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the more than 20,000 participants at the Water Environment Federation's Annual Technical and Exhibition Conference (WEFTEC) in New Orleans.

“Toledo isn't going away,” McCarthy said, ruing that nearly half a million people in Toledo, Ohio, couldn't drink water for two days in August because toxins from harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie made their way into the drinking water supplies.

“It's 2014 folks, and in the most prosperous nation on earth, for two full days, people couldn't access water,” McCarthy said.

She said Toledo was a symptom of two larger problems: the financing of water infrastructure that is crumbling and nutrient pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus—collectively known as nutrients—and the toxic algae that it feeds.

Moreover, she said climate change is bringing warmer temperatures, rising seas and harsher droughts and storms.

“If we don't act by 2050, we could lose $100 billion in coastal communities,” she said.

New Guidelines

McCarthy said the EPA was announcing the release of new guidelines for water utilities to guard against climate change and build flood resiliency.

McCarthy said Toledo pointed to the need to invest in clean water and to find creative ways to finance the aging water and wastewater infrastructure, which is estimated to need $635 billion in improvements in the next 20 years.

“We need to put all of our efforts on steroids,” McCarthy said, to help the nation's cities be resilient to extreme weather events and to find innovative ways to tackle nutrient pollution, build infrastructure and protect water supplies.

She reiterated that protection of the environment doesn't detract from growing the economy and adding jobs.

“By delaying investments in clean water, everyone pays the price with higher health costs,” McCarthy said.

Referring to a September report published by the Water Research Foundation and the Water Environment Research Foundation, “National Economic and Labor Impacts of the Water Utility Sector,” McCarthy said the findings confirm “what we already know.”

The report said 30 of the nation's top public wastewater and drinking water utilities collectively plan to invest an average of $23 billion each year over the next decade, which will generate an estimated $524 billion and support 289,000 jobs.

Foundation Report Recommends Solutions

Following McCarthy's remarks, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread released its report, “Navigating to New Shores: Seizing the Future for Sustainable and Resilient U.S. Freshwater Resources” that identifies and recommends solutions for water utilities to deal with water scarcity.

The report encourages reimagining and reinventing how water utilities are traditionally viewed. Given the changing climatic conditions, the report encourages greater reuse of water and reimagining of wastewater utilities as resource recovery facilities that rely on renewable gas generated by anaerobic digestion of biosludge, among its many recommendations.

Under the “Charting New Waters initiative,” the report synthesizes the six years spent by more than 600 water professional representing more than 250 organizations examining the challenges and solutions to address future water needs.

“Climate change will be felt primarily through water,” Lynn Broaddus, director of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, said at the press conference at WEFTEC.

Broaddus said today's technologies or the ones used in the 19th and 20th century are insufficient to deal with tomorrow's water challenges. She said the report lays out examples of innovation that is happening in every aspect of water resources management that should be tapped.

On the sidelines of the conference, Ken Kopocis, EPA deputy assistant administrator for water, told Bloomberg BNA that this report is extremely consistent with remarks the administrator gave today.

“It shows how many people are giving thoughtful consideration to new approaches and facing new challenges. This report will serve as a foundation as we look at how we do our jobs and deal with existing problems, future problems knowing that we have the technologies to deal with them,” Kopocis said.

Also present was George Hawkins, general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, who said this report is all about “who, why and what.”

He said the water professionals don't need to know the “why” but the report lays out who needs to implement the changes and how the organizations will respond to what needs to be done.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in New Orleans at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The report “National Economic and Labor Impacts of the Water Utility Sector” is available at http://www.waterrf.org/PublicReportLibrary/4566a.pdf.