Three Areas Congress Could Examine If It Decides to Reauthorize the Drinking Water Law

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I got a chance yesterday to catch up with Ben Grumbles, a former water official for the Environmental Protection Agency and current secretary for the Maryland Department of the Environment. We were at the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies conference.

Among other questions, I asked Secretary Grumbles whether Congress needs to reauthorize the Safe Drinking Water Act in light of the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis. After all, the law was last changed by Congress in 1996, and some of its provisions—such as the ability to prosecute violations of the law criminally—are considered weaker than those in other bedrock environmental laws.

Here’s what he said: “I think it’s good for Congress to continuously review some of the most important environmental laws and programs to see if we’re making as much progress as we could be making. That doesn’t mean I would support an open invitation to amend or tweak provisions of the act overall.”

Grumbles pointed to a few areas that could be reviewed:

Integrated water management and source water protection: “I know that we can do more as a country … in the interest of public health and saving money. Are there provisions within the Safe Drinking Water Act programs where we haven’t tapped into all of the potential,” he asked. “More effort in the spirit of source water protection would be good.”

Regulatory structure: The current structure “makes a lot of sense, but it also might be more cumbersome than necessary sometimes.” Congress could look at how the programs or needs may have changed over the years, he said.

Public-private partnerships: Use of these partnerships for leveraging infrastructure funding is a “key theme that I don’t think is going to die down,” Grumbles said. 
Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator, answered the same question yesterday. But she said her focus was on aggressively harnessing the existing law.

“Flint was a very unique circumstance,” she said.