A One Water State of Mind

Ben Grumbles: UIM’s 2014 Water Infrastructure Management Award Winner

By Andrew Farr

One Water. It’s a simple yet comprehensive term Ben Grumbles and the U.S. Water Alliance live by.

As Grumbles puts it, a way of describing that yesterday’s water may be rainwater, tomorrow it may be stormwater, the next day it may be wastewater, and eventually, it may be drinking water.Grumbles

At its core, ‘One Water’ refers to integrated water resource management, but it’s much more than just management, says Grumbles. “It’s literally changing the perception of how we view, value and manage water, recognizing that water changes many different shapes as it’s constantly moving throughout the hydrologic cycle,” he says.

That broad, all-encompassing perception of water is, in many ways, a fitting description of Grumbles himself, who has spent his entire career immersed in numerous aspects of environmental law and policy related to water sustainability. His leadership in these areas has culminated in his current role as president of the U.S. Water Alliance, a not-for-profit educational organization based in Washington, D.C., devoted to uniting people and policies for water sustainability.

It is through his continuous work with the U.S. Water Alliance and the many other roles he has held throughout his career perhaps most notably as Assistant Administrator for the U.S. EPA’s Office of Water that UIM is proud to honor Ben Grumbles as its 2014 Water Infrastructure Management Award Winner.


Grumbles grew up in suburban Louisville, Ky., within the Beargrass Creek Watershed of the Ohio River. He says he can remember having an interest in nature and the environment as a kid, playing in creeks and streams near his home. Years later as he began his career, he honed his focus to environmental policy.

Grumbles attended Wake Forest University where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He also has a J.D. degree from Emory University Law School and a master?s in environmental law from George Washington University Law School.

“I really enjoyed constitutional law and policy in law school,” he says. “While I had this early background of loving creeks and streams as a kid, I didn’t major in environmental sciences and I went to law school not really sure what I wanted to do. There weren’t a lot of programs and opportunities on environmental law at the time, but that didn’t pique my interest as much as policy and administrative procedure.”

What Grumbles did know was that he didn’t want to become a traditional lawyer. He says a major moment in his life came when he had the opportunity to be an intern on Capitol Hill in the summer of 1984, when he was assigned to work on the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee within the Public Works and Transportation Committee (now called the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee).

Upon completing law school, Grumbles was offered a full-time position in the House, where he continued to serve on various Congressional committees including the water resources subcommittee, acknowledging that it was during that time that he truly developed an appreciation and a deeper understanding of environmental law and policy.

CWA Revisions & WRDA

During the mid-1980s, several notable issues affecting water policy were under examination in Congress. Throughout that time, Grumbles became a fly on the wall for big meetings between Senate and House leaders to hash out revisions to the Clean Water Act, Army Corps of Engineers civil works programs, FEMA regulations, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) legislation and many other programs.

In particular, Grumbles primary focus as he served as a counsel on the water resources subcommittee, was helping the committee and members of Congress revise and reauthorize the Clean Water Act. The rewrites eventually led to the significant 1987 amendments.

One of the most substantial changes that came out of the revisions, Grumbles says, was the attempted compromise between the Reagan Administration and Congress to phase out the construction grants program for upgrading and constructing sewer systems, and moving toward the State Revolving Loan Fund model. Another initiative Grumbles worked on was putting a non-point source management program in place, which added structure, funding and priority to managing diffuse runoff a growing threat to water quality. There were also provisions within the 1987 amendments related to the control of toxic pollution, but Grumbles says the one issue that is both praised and vilified by many to this day was the Stormwater Permitting Program that included new measures for both municipal separate storm sewer systems and stormwater discharges from industrial and commercial activities.

“It was a comprehensive rewrite of the Clean Water Act,” Grumbles says. “It was a strengthening and also a transition to new models, particularly the State Revolving Fund piece of it.”

Along with Clean Water Act revisions, Grumbles also spent much of his time working on Army Corps of Engineers water resources programs, particularly the 1986 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and subsequent WRDAs every two or four years. The implementation of the 1986 WRDA also involved an important compromise between the Administration and Congress, which agreed on cautionary cost-share provisions including non-federal responsibilities for projects, funding mechanisms for inland waterways, harbor maintenance and environmental provisions that gave the Army Corps of Engineers authority to modify existing projects to incorporate better environmental features.

“Those two major reauthorizations and laws, the Clean Water Act amendments in 1987 and Water Resources Development Act in 1986, kept me really busy,” Grumbles says. “It was great seeing a lot of big deals being made so that Congress was legislating the program. There was less bickering and more legislating [despite] intense battles.”

“It was very gratifying to see the system working with all the give and take,” he says. “[There were] grudge matches sometimes between the Administration and the Congress or between the House and the Senate, but it eventually worked out, passing these major infrastructure and water-related laws.”

Shift to EPA

Grumbles continued his work in various environmental counsel and staff director roles for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee until 2001. After serving a year on the House Science Committee as deputy chief of staff and environmental counsel, Grumbles was offered a position as deputy assistant administrator for water at EPA, where he immediately had the opportunity to help the national water program in the development of some major policies and programs. In addition to that position, Grumbles also spent time as the acting head of EPA’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. Grumbles held that position for about eight months before he entered into what he calls the bulk of his happy years at EPA working in the Office of Water.

In 2004, Grumbles was nominated by the Bush Administration and approved unanimously by the Senate to be the 13th assistant administrator for Water at EPA since its creation in 1970. During his time in that position, he focused heavily on legal issues surrounding regulatory jurisdiction. In particular, Grumbles worked on the issue of uncertainty surrounding waters of the United States and also steps needed to achieve national goals of “no net loss,” and eventually overall gain of wetlands.

“I spent a lot time on guidance (such as the 2008 waters of the U.S. guidance) and meeting with local and Congressional leaders and the regulated community so that EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers could make progress towards the national goal of no net loss of wetlands and have a regulatory program that had certainty, fairness and predictability,” Grumbles said.

“It was always a struggle within the agencies and throughout the country with the many diverse views and strong positions, trying to find a balance between those whose priority was property rights and others whose priority was environmental protection.”

Grumbles said throughout his time as head of the Office of Water, one of the biggest challenges was infrastructure funding, not just because of federal fiscal limitations, but also the competing national priorities at the time.

“The [Bush] Administration was very much aware of the need for fiscal constraint,” he says. “There were other priorities across the country relating to homeland security and energy policies. So there was a constant tension recognizing that the water and wastewater needs of the county were growing and yet the EPA budget was not.”

Grumbles also worked on many high profile issues involving emerging contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act, drinking water and clean water affordability, as well as inland and coastal nutrient pollution.

Voluntary Incentives for Efficiency

One of Grumbles’ major priorities, which came to fruition midway through his term as head of the Office of Water, was promoting the value of water efficiency and conservation through voluntary incentives rather than regulatory tools.

Among the most significant efforts in that area was the WaterSense program, which Grumbles was integral in launching in 2006. WaterSense, somewhat modeled on the EPA?s Energy Star program, provides a certification and labeling system for water-efficient appliances and fixtures using collaborative tools and market-based incentives rather than EPA regulatory tools.

“That was a new territory for the EPA,” Grumbles says. “There were a lot of struggles over that, but I think everybody realized the need for a collaborative, national program to help consumers make informed choices about saving water, energy and money.”

Specifically, the WaterSense program provides labels for water-efficient toilets, bathroom fixtures, shower heads, faucets, pre-rinse spray valves and weather-based irrigation controllers, to name a few. Its goal is to make consumers aware that products with the WaterSense label are at least 20 percent more water efficient than comparable products providing the same level of service.

“The most important part of the WaterSense program was that going through rigorous testing to meet EPA criteria and specifications, the product had to provide at least a 20 percent savings in water with absolutely no sacrifice in performance,” Grumbles says. “So in fact, WaterSense products are more effective and efficient.

“It’s just a great example of using collaboration and technology to make environmental progress and reduce energy consumption as well as water consumption.”

According to EPA, since 2006 WaterSense-labeled products have helped consumers save more than 757 billion gallons of water and more than $14.2 billion in water and energy bills.


In 2009 after his term as assistant administrator for water was complete, Grumbles accepted a position as Director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), serving as the head of the agency that holds jurisdiction over the air, water and waste programs of the state. Grumbles served on the cabinet of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who at the beginning of Grumbles’ tenure called him one of the nation’s most thoughtful and collaborative environmental regulators.

“It was a great opportunity made even greater by the fact that I had family in Arizona, who my wife, kids, and I got to spend time with,” says Grumbles. “I got the chance to experience a wide range of environmental challenges and opportunities in the Southwest. I think I spent more time on air issues than I did on water issues. I spent a lot of time working on air pollution and water challenges presented by mining or development and waste management throughout the state.”

U.S. Water Alliance

After spending almost two years in Arizona with ADEQ, Grumbles was compelled by family needs back East to move his family back to the Washington, D.C., area not sure what he was going to do next.

Enter the Clean Water America Alliance a not-for-profit organization aimed at gathering various facets of the water sector together for collaboration on finding integrated solutions to water challenges from infrastructure to source water protection. Officially formed in 2008, the group was in need of a full-time executive director and offered Grumbles the job, the position he continues to hold today (the organization changed its name to the U.S. Water Alliance in 2013 to more closely reflect its broad mission).

“The vision was that America needs a national water policy, and that doesn’t mean a one-size-fits-all policy, and national doesn’t mean federal. It just means that all of us throughout the country need to put more attention to water opportunities and water challenges and make sure there are integrated solutions to water sustainability,” Grumbles says. “I saw the Alliance as a convening organization to break down silos and move the county towards a more integrated, holistic approach to water and get people in the public and private sectors, and people in the drinking water and clean water worlds, thinking about this concept of ‘One Water.'”

Grumbles says he was attracted to the wide-ranging involvement of Board members, encompassing city leaders from around the country, as well as various business and environmental leaders. One of those leaders is Dick Champion, director of the Independence Water Pollution Control Department in Independence, Mo., who has served as Chair of the Board of Directors since the Alliance?s inception. Champion says Grumbles? progressive leadership of the Alliance is undeniable.

“Ben is the consummate public servant,” says Champion. “To be that, you have to have a certain heart. Ben has a lot of heart and is very committed and he understands how water touches everyone’s lives in everything we do.”

U.S. Water Prize

One way the Alliance uses its collaborative initiatives to recognize innovation and preach the “One Water” concept is through its annual U.S. Water Prize, which has gained both attention and prominence since the inaugural awards were presented in 2011. The Water Prize aims to encourage and celebrate individuals and institutions that develop projects or programs that are innovative and advance water sustainability.

The diversity of the Alliance is reflected in the recipients of the prize, who, since 2011, have included the City of Los Angeles, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the Orange County Water District and Sanitation District, the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, American Water, the Milwaukee Water Council, the Alliance for Water Efficiency and MillerCoors.

“No one in the U.S. Water Alliance is naive about how challenging it can be to adopt integrated, holistic approaches,” Grumbles says. “Bureaucracies create barriers, and that’s understandable. There are reasons why separate organizations and laws develop. But we find there’s tremendous power in collaboration to find efficiencies of scale and efficiencies of scope so that within a community or watershed, you can save ratepayers money and make environmental progress.”

Other Initiatives

The U.S. Water Alliance is also manager for the Value of Water Coalition and its Water Works! campaign. The members, which include key water trade associations, utilities and businesses, use events, media and social media to raise public awareness nationally and help leaders locally to increase appreciation for water and investment in supporting infrastructure.

In addition to his work with the U.S. Water Alliance, Grumbles continues to serve on numerous other boards and committees today, including the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Academy of Sciences and the State Water Control Board of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He is also a former board member and current supporter of River of Words, a national nonprofit committed to connecting kids to their watersheds and imaginations through poetry and art.

Grumbles says he likes working in the water sector because of the opportunities and growth that exists in uniting various entities of the industry despite the many challenges it involves.

“A challenge is getting public attention and support for what is often invisible, unappreciated and underfunded,” says Grumbles. ” ‘Love your water and invest in its future’ resonates with me but is still a tough sell in many places.”

“We can solve so many problems by improving our stewardship of water and watersheds. The joy is about uniting strange bedfellows,” he says. “That’s one reason why the Alliance’s “One Water” theme has been so compelling to me. It’s more important, and far more fun, to find common ground than to create canyons and quagmires. The opportunities for new partnerships and collaborations within and outside of the water sector are unlimited.”

“Water touches and connects all of us, so just about every aspect of water’s noble mission makes it a public service. That inspires me.”

Andrew Farr is associate editor of UIM.


Water Infrastructure Management Award

The Water Infrastructure Management Award was created by UIM in 2012 to recognize individuals who are on the forefront of driving innovation and who have had a lasting and meaningful impact within their utility and/or the water/wastewater field.

You can help participate in recognizing such leaders by nominating worthy candidates for the 2015 Water Infrastructure Management Award. UIM is accepting nominations for innovative water infrastructure professionals working in the public sector who are involved with the operation of a water, wastewater and/or stormwater system. The individual should display innovative strategic planning and management practices. Nominations are judged on innovation; the economic, social and environmental benefits as a result of the individual?s leadership; cooperation; and lasting impact.

The awards are presented at the annual UIM Conference in the fall, held at the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, Va. (just outside Washington, D.C.). The 2015 UIM Conference is currently being planned. For more information, contact Jim Rush, editor, at jrush@benjaminmedia.com.

UIM Award Recipients:
2012 – Steve Allbee, U.S. EPA
2013 – Kevin Shafer, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
2014 – Ben Grumbles, U.S. Water Alliance

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