As any general manager will tell you, the costs of compliance for wastewater agencies can be one of the most significant drivers for local budgets. Monitoring, reporting, special studies, permit fees, lab tests, and increasingly stringent permit limits: these are just some of the escalating requirements agencies contend with. Some are core components of the federal Clean Water Act, but most are the direct result of policies or practices imposed by your state water quality regulators.
While many of these are essential functions of the clean water regime and help protect water quality and the public health, others are relics of a time before advanced secondary and tertiary treatment were commonplace, or practices that have somehow become standard without any demonstrated water quality benefits. Often, monitoring or reporting obligations that have limited value make their way into “standardized” templates and never make their way back out. Whatever the reasoning, monitoring and reporting obligations tend to accumulate exponentially and are rarely reexamined to determine their continued utility. In California, the California Association of Sanitation Agencies (CASA) is spearheading an effort in cooperation with our State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) to find ways to reduce the costs associated with these requirements in common sense ways and reintroduce an element of “give and take” in the regulatory process.
Rising Costs as An Opportunity
Back in 2011, the State Water Board raised its permit fees for the tenth straight year, leading to considerable frustration within the regulated community and a call for better ways to reduce the costs of compliance. If water quality regulators were going to continue to take a bigger and bigger share of local agency budgets, they should give on some of the requirements that were costing agencies millions of dollars a year in the aggregate.
This message resonated with the Board, which directed its staff to prepare a report that assessed and aligned State Water Board priorities, resources, and performance targets, a report that was completed in 2012. The second phase of this “resource alignment” process was that the State Water Board basically agreed, for the first time in many years, to help find inefficiencies and redundancies in their requirements and work with the affected community to remove them.
A Shifting Paradigm
Getting buy-in from Board members and staff was somewhat of a victory in itself. In years past, it would have been anathema to consider agency costs in the context of obligations imposed, for fear of appearing to put a monetary “value” on water quality or placing “cost” considerations before environmental protection. Regulators regulated, agencies implemented, and ratepayers shouldered the bill. Thus, a state agency undertaking this type of initiative represents more than just an accommodation to frustrated dischargers: it is a shifting paradigm for addressing regulatory issues.
Of course, the active participation of the regulated community was essential to pushing the process along and identifying actions that increase costs without improving water quality. CASA and several other interested parties came up with a series of proposals [here and here] to address some of the most frequently cited complaints about significant cost drivers that were not resulting in any water quality benefits. Duplicative and unnecessary monitoring and reporting was the most common concern, but the sheer volume of special studies and reports being required (yet often, not being reviewed) was also high on the list.
Getting Specific: Small Victories and Next Steps
In the wake of a 2013 Board resolution memorializing its commitment to this process, CASA staff and participating stakeholders have met regularly with State Water Board staff to help gather and validate data on compliance costs (and opportunities to reduce these costs). Recommended changes to California’s Sanitary Sewer System Waste Discharge Requirements (SSS WDRs) regime could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost savings and avoid hundreds of wasted man-hours at local wastewater agencies across the state. Perhaps more importantly, the paradigm shift that his endeavor represents has begun to trickle down to the more hands-on staff: regional permit writers and the local agencies they work with. Some of the best success stories from this initiative have come from individual agencies that are in the process of renegotiating their permits. In one example, a local agency in the process of a permit renegotiation cited the demonstrated interest of the State Water Board in reducing the cost of compliance as part of this ongoing initiative. By opening this conversation, the agency was able to eliminate several unnecessary monitoring and reporting requirements related to their pretreatment program from their revised permit, saving tens of thousands of dollars in the process. This is an example CASA hopes will become more and more common in the coming months and years.
In terms of the ongoing State process, this next step is where the rubber meets the road so to speak. What remains to be done now is to develop a comprehensive list of specific instances where unnecessary or duplicative monitoring is being required, or inefficient approaches to special studies or reports are being taken, and convert that into a reference for statewide action. Getting such specific proposals together, and ensuring that they are distributed to the state and regional water boards, will help agencies focus on activities that yield the most bang for their buck.
Lessons Learned: California as a Case Study
In many ways California is unique, but the types of approaches being taken here could be replicated in any state in the country. Sometimes it is simply a matter of timing, determination, and finding a high-level champion within the state. When your water quality regulator inevitably raises permit fees or adopts a new policy or program that increases the costs and burdens placed on your agencies, take advantage of the opportunity to raise the issue of ever-increasing costs of compliance. All advocates raise the specter of direct cost increases as a result of the policy or permit being enacted, but many fail to take that opportunity to suggest addressing other cost drivers as a potential (if not complete) offset to the costs of the new program. This is a tact that proved successful here, and may be a more palatable way for regulators to address costs without appearing to engage in some kind of water quality/cost benefit analysis. Regional wastewater representatives have a unique opportunity to press for changes that can reduce the cost of compliance. Sometimes, all that is needed is a little bit of give and take.
Adam Link is the director of government affairs for CASA and is responsible for managing the association"s legal and regulatory priorities. In addition, he works with CASA's state and federal lobbyists on legislative priorities and initiatives.