AWWA Report: The Post-Election Landscape for the Water Sector

One of a newly elected president?s most urgent jobs is to oversee a personnel process called a ?transition,? though as a second-termer, President Barack Obama?s personnel decisions can be more leisurely. Some, but not all, of the 7,000 positions appointed by the President typically turn over after the first term. Despite a fair amount of turbulence on his White House team in the first term, the president has had more stability at the cabinet level than many previous presidents. That may only suggest that some changes are overdue.

While neither presidential candidate in this year?s race focused squarely on water issues, jobs and the economy did provide an important backdrop to the election. As a candidate four years ago, then Senator Obama said he would ?invest in our nation?s most pressing short and long-term infrastructure needs,? including water. Having said that, the water sector received only limited funds in the president?s 2009 stimulus bill.

The sequester is expected to reduce EPA?s budget by about $700 million in the current year, with at least $200 million of that coming from the drinking water and clean water state revolving loan fund programs. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers monies and U.S. Department of Agriculture?s (USDA) small water and wastewater assistance programs also are expected to be cut by about 8 percent.

Notwithstanding the ?fiscal cliff,? there is significant interest on the Hill in finding ways to support increased infrastructure investment. Funding for the SRFs is expected to continue, though strong efforts will be necessary to maintain funding at current levels. It appears the outlook for a water trust fund has diminished considerably since the last election, and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority (WIFIA) is now widely seen as the preferred mechanism if there can be increased federal support for water infrastructure.

Waters of the United States: In April 2011, EPA released draft guidance on waters of the United States, largely in response to several court decisions that seemed to limit the authority of EPA and the Corps of Engineers (e.g., Rapanos v. United States). This draft guidance was strongly supported by environmental groups but widely seen by business groups and much of the state and local government community as expanding the reach of the Clean Water Act?s wetlands provisions, a characterization the administration denies. Others criticized the administration for addressing the issue through guidance instead of regulation, noting that guidance is advisory to federal agencies but is essentially enforceable against the regulated community. This guidance was on hold leading into the election ? expect it to be finalized early in Obama?s second term.

Chemical and Cyber Security: The administration has made clear that it believes chemical facilities ? including water plants that store or use certain chemicals ? are potential terrorist targets and that more aggressive protective measures should be mandated. More recently, the administration and its allies on the Hill have also been sounding the alarm about the risks to the nation of cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, and have recommended mandatory requirements for water systems and others. Expect a strong push from the administration on these issues in the next Congress.

Drinking Water Standards: In 2008, the Obama campaign said that ?Barack Obama and Joe Biden will reinvigorate drinking water standards.? Decisions made at EPA in the last four years reflect that campaign promise. The AWWA expects the effort to promulgate additional drinking water standards to continue and even escalate in the president?s second term, and we are likely to see a number of new or revised drinking water standards proposed as soon as early next year.

Legislating Standards: The Democratic leaders of both the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee have supported bills to require EPA to establish a national primary drinking water regulation for perchlorate. With Republicans in charge of the House, bills to mandate particular regulations are unlikely to pass. The AWWA continues to believe that standards should be set through the regulatory process, based on the best available science, and not through the political process.

While the AWWA consulted experts in both parties in the development of this report, please remember that many important decisions that affect the water community won?t be made for some time. You can probably count on surprises as senior administration officials and advisors change from election mode back to governing, and as the new Congress convenes in January.

Whether the candidates you supported in this election won or lost, please remember how special it is that Americans get to choose their leaders and set the nation?s fundamental direction. We really do have?- to quote Abraham Lincoln?- a government of the people, by the people and for the people. To realize that vision, though, we have to ?close the circle? after each election and look beyond the partisanship that elections necessarily entail. The nation now deserves our best efforts to pull together. We know the water community will do that, ever mindful that protecting public health and the environment is a sacred trust going far beyond politics.

This information was taken from the AWWA report, ?Election 2012: What Does it Mean for Water?? Reprinted by permission. Copyright ?2012 by the American Water Works Association.

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