Last night, President Obama delivered his final State of the Union address, presenting his vision for the future of the country. One thing notably missing from his discussion was any mention of increased investment in the nation’s infrastructure, especially water infrastructure. This serves as a stark reminder of the need for the municipal clean water community to continue advocating strongly for its priorities, particularly with regard to the continued gap between what our communities can afford to spend and what they will need to spend to meet their clean water obligations. This is especially true during an election year, when it is critical to lay the advocacy groundwork for conversations with a new Administration and a new Congress next year.
Just today, EPA released its most recent Clean Water Needs Survey, showing an estimated financial need of $271 billion dollars from the nation’s municipal clean water utilities over the next five years to upgrade their systems to meet federal Clean Water Act obligations. This number does not include the additional hundreds of billions of dollars that communities and utilities will need to spend over the next 20 years just to maintain their existing systems. These numbers clearly show the continued need for meaningful federal involvement in clean water infrastructure funding.
The President’s speech last night notwithstanding, there have been some important and positive developments during the Obama Administration with regard to clean water issues. On the funding front, the most notable accomplishment was the $4 billion for clean water infrastructure (plus another $2 billion for drinking water) that was included in the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act – also known as the stimulus bill. Funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) has also stayed more or less steady, although Congress has often had to supplement the amount proposed by the Administration on an annual basis.
On the policy side, the Administration has made significant strides in acknowledging the increasing clean water burdens on communities by advancing the Integrated Planning concept and exploring new flexibilities for communities when it comes to affordability considerations. Although some of these initiatives do not go as far as many in the clean water sector would prefer – particularly since EPA has steadfastly refused to update its woefully outdated affordability guidance – they are an important recognition of the need to provide communities with more flexibility and local control over how they meet their clean water requirements.
NACWA played an active and vital role in all these positive developments over the past seven years, and is grateful to the Obama Administration for all it has done thus far to help address the needs of clean water utilities. But just as the President has turned his sights towards the future, so must the municipal clean water community look ahead towards what is to come and begin laying the groundwork for our future advocacy efforts.
Some may think that 2016 leading up to the Fall elections is the “calm before the storm” of a new presidential administration and a new Congress, and that there is not much advocacy work to be done. But in fact the exact opposite is true. Now is the time for NACWA and its members to ramp up our outreach and discussion with key lawmakers and policymakers about what we view as the priorities for clean water. The education that we do and the relationships that we strengthen this year will lay a strong foundation for our conversations next year when a new set of decision-makers take the reins in Washington.
NACWA will be releasing a white paper in the next few months outlining our advocacy vision for the future. Guided by the leadership of our Board of Directors, this white paper will express our new strategic vision on how we propose to change the paradigm when it comes to clean water and position clean water utilities to be recognized and treated as the true public stewards they are. It will also provide a path forward on how we can achieve the paradigm shift we seek, including what advocacy steps we need to take.
We will begin walking this advocacy path this year, laying the groundwork for how we interact with the new President and the new Congress next year. And hopefully, if we are successful, discussion of the importance of our nation’s water infrastructure will no longer be an afterthought in future presidential addresses.