EPA to Issue Flexible Stormwater Management Memorandum, Providing Relief to Cities
By Rich Anderson
October 3, 2011
Mayors attending the Conference of Mayors Fall Leadership Meeting met with EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepi, Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles (Office of Enforcement and Compliance), and Acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner (Office of Water) in Washington DC on September 21. Co-chairs of the Mayors Water Council, Pleasanton Mayor Jennifer Hosterman, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, led the discussion between the Mayors and EPA officials.
Conference of Mayors Vice President Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter welcomed the EPA representatives, stating that the nation's cities share a common clean water goal with the EPA. He also said that aggressive regulatory programs at EPA concerning Combined Sewer Overflows and Sanitary Sewer Overflows (CSOs/SSOs) are dangerously near bankrupting our cities and interfering with local government's ability to manage their cities. He strongly urged the agency to be more flexible and work with cities to find affordable solutions to managing wet weather overflows.
Perciasepi said, “It is important to him and Administrator Lisa Jackson to change the dynamic between the agency and the cities.” He noted, from personal experience, the progress that has been made in cleaning up Baltimore Harbor; and he recognized the common bond cities have with EPA in achieving clean water goals. Perciasepi announced that EPA is drafting a new Memorandum to be shared with the regional offices in the next several weeks to announce a new partnership with the municipal regulated community to be flexible and integrate CSO, SSO and storm water requirements in a way that allows cities to sequence investments to get the greatest environmental returns.
Mayors Outline Concerns
Rawlings-Blake encouraged the agency to take a new direction with cities that is cooperative and not adversarial. The mayor discussed the difficulty of dealing with an uncooperative attitude on the part of enforcement and permit officials at EPA's Regional office. Baltimore has had to raise rates by nine percent annually to comply with EPA mandates. Noting that the city has a substantial portion of economically distressed families, the mayor stated that a continued series of new water and wastewater mandates with costly compliance requirements is not financially sustainable. She called on the headquarters representatives to intervene and use their influence with the regional offices to promote reasonable solutions.
Ballard stated that he appreciates that the agency agreed to re-open the Indianapolis consent agreement, and that the city saved $770 million by amending the long term control plan (LTCP) while simultaneously achieving a greater level of environmental improvement. He stated the effort was tremendously difficult, and that the agency could make it much easier for all cities. The focus of the LTCPs, stated Ballard, should be on the outcome the city defines as environmentally superior, not, as EPA tends to do, on dictating how much money the city should pay for a LTCP. This sentiment was echoed by Omaha (NE) Mayor Jim Suttle, who suggested that EPAs' interpretation of how much a city “should” afford to comply with the CSO controls is vague and usually results in an unrealistically high cost to cities. Suttle emphasized that EPA dictated solutions force cities to shift unfunded mandate costs among ratepayers. An unfortunate result of this approach is that it places financial burdens on local industries that can move away and take the jobs and local economic multipliers with them; and, it requires the city to shift higher utility rates to a smaller number of industries and system users.
Des Moines (IA) Mayor T. Franklin Cownie remarked that Des Moines entered into a $270 million consent decree that requires the city to reengineer the CSOs. He said that EPA recently stated that cities are required to apply biological treatment instead of relying on bacteria mixing zones in receiving streams. The mixing zones were allowed by state regulators as long as there were no public health impacts. Now, in a move that is almost universally understood by the regulated community as a reinterpretation of an existing rule by EPA, cities will be on the hook for major additional investments in new treatment capacity – even though the agency forced the cities to move towards SSOs to solve the CSO problems. Chicopee (MA) Mayor Bissonnette commented that EPA should be a partner, not a lead foot on city necks.
Perciasepi was short on details about how this new approach would work, but it is directly responsive to criticisms brought to the agency in a two-year dialogue with the Conference of Mayors concerning the need for flexibility, and the need for the agency to recognize the new economic reality of shrinking local government revenues. It also recognizes what mayors have been saying for the last several years: “If everything is an environmental priority, then nothing is a priority.”
EPA's New Approach
While details remain to be seen if this new approach is a landmark breakaway from the command-and-control regimen of enforcing regulations in a series of separate silos, the EPA leadership appears to be struggling with evolving the bureaucracy into a more sophisticated approach to achieving clean water goals. The new economic reality of shrinking public revenues and an already too high leveraged amount of outstanding local government debt (a ratio of 102 percent of long-term debt to annual revenues) requires new thinking by cities and federal agencies concerning unfunded mandates.
The EPA appears willing to support a new approach based on the discussions at the Conference of Mayors Fall Leadership Meeting. Giles stated that her office is committed to working together with the regulated community to achieve clean water goals. She cited several recent consent agreements where EPA has agreed to increase the use of green infrastructure, and has extended compliance schedules to ease the carrying cost burden of debt amortization. Giles emphasized that EPA has already sent a memorandum to the Regional offices to promote the use of green infrastructure in CSO/SSO consent agreements.
Stoner emphasized that partnering with the nation's cities is important to achieving clean water goals. She stated that EPA understands cities have competing priorities. The Office of Water (and EPA) is committed to reform the regulatory process to provide for more local flexibility as long as the environmental benefits are real.