If water-industry superstars were celebrated like entertainers, an introduction to G. Tracy Mehan III wouldn’t be necessary. But water, as industry veterans know, doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves … until services are threatened. At that point, as all along, we turn to our water leaders for answers, which is why I contacted Mehan for this Q&A.
For those with a career in water, or a passion for protecting it, a full introduction to Mehan may not be necessary. And, in truth, we don’t have enough space here to cover all of his achievements. A still-long, but much-deserved, overview [deep breath]:
Currently, Mehan is executive director of government affairs for the American Water Works Association (AWWA), an adjunct professor at the George Mason University School of Law, and a member of the Environmental Law Institute (ELI).
Formerly, he was assistant administrator for water at the U.S. EPA from 2001 to 2003, and he served on EPA’s Environmental Financial Advisory Board from 2014 to 2018.
Additionally, he was principal of The Cadmus Group (2004- 2014), environmental stewardship counselor to the 2004 G-8 Summit Planning Organization (2004), director of the Michigan office of the Great Lakes (1993-2001), interim president for the U.S. Water Alliance (2015), and source water protection coordinator for the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (2013-2015). And lastly, though first to be achieved, he earned degrees from Saint Louis University and its School of Law (we’ll spare him the graduation dates).
With that, we turn to our celebrated, if not celebrity, Q&A guest for direction in this critical time of change and challenge in the water and wastewater industry.
As AWWA’s executive director of government affairs, how are you focusing your energy with this presidential administration and EPA? Are there new windows of opportunity with this new leadership?
We at AWWA are lending our voices to the conversation on the Hill to ensure that water infrastructure and lead are not overlooked in the legislative scrum. We also support greater financial support for removal of PFAS compounds. The ultimate cost of PFAS regulation will likely dwarf the costs of lead service line removal. Last year, my staff did a preliminary analysis for the Congressional Budget Office of national costs associated with implementing drinking water treatment to remove PFOA and PFOS, two legacy compounds likely to be regulated first by EPA. There are hundreds in commerce, but these two are known quantities and allowed us to make some calculations. The costs quickly exceed $3 billion if the standard were to be based on EPA’s current health advisory, which has been largely ignored by states regulating at even lower limits. If EPA were to move closer to the standard used by states like New Jersey, capital costs quickly exceed $38 billion. These figures do not include operating costs and waste management, which would likely exceed $1 billion annually, again, depending on the regulatory standard and waste-management requirements currently under consideration by Congress and EPA. PFOA, PFOS, and other contaminants are designated as hazardous wastes or substances under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and Superfund costs respectively skyrocket.
Water issues have received increasing attention — mostly negative — from both the U.S. press and citizens in recent years, yet the track record for utilities is astoundingly good. How can we as an industry change the current narrative?
Flint has cast a dark cloud over the water sector, very unfairly, to my mind. It was a governance failure at the local, state, and federal levels, in that order, a failure to comply or enforce the existing Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). It has put a premium on utilities strengthening trust with their public and customers, not taking them for granted, communicating proactively and frequently, and listening to their concerns. Social media has to be part of every utility’s strategic communication planning. We also need to affirmatively communicate our success in managing very complicated, highly engineered, capital-intensive systems that support vast distribution networks. For example, how many people know that, according to EPA, the median bloodlead levels in kids 1 to 5 years of age have dropped 95 percent over the past 40-plus years? And the number of the nation’s large drinking water systems with a 90th percentile sample value exceeding the LCR action level of 15 parts per billion has decreased by over 90 percent since its initial implementation? There is more to be done, but success has been real. We commissioned the national polling firm, Morning Consult, last year and found that four in five Americans served by a water utility (77 percent) say the quality of their tap water is excellent or good. But not wanting to rest on our laurels, AWWA has long encouraged its utility members to begin creating an inventory of all lead service lines, on public and private property. This is a crucial first step toward systematically replacing them over time. The old adage, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” still applies.
In broad terms, what are the biggest challenges facing the U.S. in terms of water security, and what are the means to overcome them?
Key challenges to water security include aging infrastructure, financing, climate variability and droughts, aging workforce, cybersecurity, and affordability for the poorest of our customers. Technology will play a part in the solution to these challenges; but a sustainable, robust, equitable rate structure will be key to creating the technical, managerial, and financial bases for innovation and infrastructure renewal, not to mention assisting households with low incomes. The hard truth is that ratepayers — utility customers, if you will — will still be the primary source of financing under any realistic scenario of increased federal support for water infrastructure. Hence, prudence in the promulgation of future regulations, with an eye to efficacy, benefit-cost ratios, and net social benefit, is important. That said, 90 percent of the 51,000 community water systems — many of which are serving hundreds, not thousands, of customers — are achieving all published Safe Drinking Water Act standards (90 parameters), according to EPA.
Drinking water utilities have been slower to participate in the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program than utilities managing wastewater, stormwater, and water-reuse projects. Why is that, and how do we encourage more participation from the drinking water sector?
EPA has done a fantastic job supporting WIFIA — a new federal credit program, conceived and enacted into law due to the efforts of AWWA — under the leadership of Andrew Sawyer. But water utilities have been too conservative in not considering WIFIA as an innovative financing tool. They need to learn how they can use WIFIA to their advantage for pressing challenges like replacement of distribution and lead service lines, as well as traditional treatment and reuse. You could even protect a headwaters forest or implement agricultural management practices as sourcewater protection at scale. AWWA has been working hard with our partners at EPA to educate our members on the benefits of WIFIA, including low, fixed rates, locked in at closing, almost 40-year payback schedules, and the ability to “sculpt” or time payments to fit income flow (e.g., the retirement of other debt). I think things are changing for the better for our sector as drinking water managers learn more about the program.
Do you or AWWA have a particular position on the PFAS threat and how it should be handled?
AWWA and its members will follow the science. By that, I mean the science-based, data-driven, risk-focused processes set out in the ’96 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act. We understand that Congress is anxious to see action, but legislative micromanagement of very complex scientific and economic issues is problematic. Issues such as these require expert attention by EPA based on the best available science. The federal agencies — EPA and OMB — are equipped to do legitimate benefit-cost analyses, a practice most state governments are not able to do effectively. I know, as I served in two state regulatory agencies. Affordability is a pressing concern these days, and thoughtful regulation must balance benefits, costs, and equity. Congress does not have the tools or the time to do the work of federal environmental agencies.
What were the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of water? Is there a silver lining to carry into the future?
Resilience in the utility sector is essential, not just for climate, but also for unforeseen disasters of all kinds — most notably, COVID-19. I have been impressed with how our utility members and other partners responded to the crisis despite threats to the health of staff and the financial pressure caused by the shutdown of the economy and the imperative to suspend shutoffs. It proved that water people view this work as a vocation, not just a job. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, to call. The provision of safe, affordable drinking water is the highest of callings.