From The Editor | February 21, 2017

Under New EPA, Rural Water Association Sees Chance For Change

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

In December, President Trump selected Scott Pruitt, an Oklahoma attorney general with a history of challenging government overreach, as his pick for administrator of the U.S. EPA.

The nomination was largely derided by environmentalists who cited Pruitt’s history of denying climate change. Now confirmed, it is more than likely that Pruitt will pull back on the EPA’s regulatory actions. But, beyond that, the jury is still out on how Pruitt, and the Trump presidency at large, will affect water and wastewater utilities.

In an effort to shore up their position under Pruitt and ensure that their voice is heard during his administration, the National Rural Water Association (NRWA), the country’s largest utility membership organization, sent the new administrator a letter. In it, the NRWA both offered itself as a resource for Pruitt to lean on in efforts to protect drinking water in rural America and urged him to rethink how the EPA treats its member utilities.

There is a competition of ideas concerning environmental protection and, specifically, drinking water safety and we think we have the best ideas and record, and now that a new administration is coming to the EPA and looking at competing policies, we want the most persuasive ideas and policies,” said Mike Keegan, a member of NRWA’s legislative and regulatory staff. [The letter] serves as a central, representative voice of our constituency: small and rural communities.”

NRWA representatives used the letter to testify in front of the U.S. Senate this month and circulated it among members of Congress to encourage legislators to consider how their policies affect drinking water and environmental protection in small towns across the country.

Because all environmental policies are reviewed under a new administration, this is a non-partisan effort by NRWA,” said Keegan. We would advance the same policies with any new administration. It is a way we think we can benefit our membership.”

It should be no surprise that the NRWA wants to help Pruitt advance policies that will help its members. It offered its network of small town and rural utilities and in-the-field technical staff to weigh in on any potential changes. These are efforts that the organization thinks are overdue.

Keegan cited the EPA’s 2016 Drinking Water Action Plan — which stated, The number and small scale of these systems is one of the single greatest challenges facing the U.S. drinking water system” — to illustrate the problem with the EPA’s attitude toward NRWA’s members.

This narrative needs to be countered by acknowledging the reality that small, local governmental water utilities are governed directly by local citizens to benefit local citizens,” he said.

The NRWA wants to see Pruitt’s EPA put more emphasis on providing assistance to small utilities and loosen up on the enforcement of unreasonable regulatory requirements, a reasonable expectation given the incoming administrator’s disdain for government overreach. As an argument for why NRWA members should be given more free reign, Keegan points to their independent history.

It is notable that it was not regulation that brought drinking water to rural America,” he said. It was most frequently local volunteers organizing together, forming local government structures, accepting debt to build the water utility, convincing neighbors to commit to pay off the debt, and often volunteering their labor to build the water infrastructure.”

The NRWA sees in Pruitt the opportunity to shift what it considers an unfair perception that the federal government promotes regarding its members. Specifically, it seems that the NRWA would like to see the EPA do less to alarm the public at large regarding the status of their drinking water.

EPA compliance data and mandatory public notifications regarding small and rural communities is often used to confuse the public on safety of their drinking water and who is actually keeping the public’s water safe,” said Keegan. Some mandatory EPA public notice warnings have caused such unnecessary public alarm that state regulatory agencies have been compelled to release additional notices to tell the public not to take the EPA warnings too seriously.”

For instance, Keegan said that there are numerous communities that are technically in violation of federal standards for naturally occurring elements in groundwater even though there will be no public health consequences.

Finally, the NRWA used the letter to voice its opposition to public-private partnerships that undermine its state-affiliated members.

The EPA should leave any decisions regarding privatization to the local citizens’ discretion,” Keegan said. The EPA should acknowledge that private utility service is distinct in mission from public water utilities. Private, corporate water systems are a business, whereas public water utilities are created to provide for the public welfare and are accountable to the public they serve.”

Of course, laying out the policies it promotes and explaining why it would benefit members is what the NRWA exists to do. But it is worth taking stock of where they stand during a time of such fundamental change in regulatory leadership. Many of the organization’s goals seem to line up with Pruitt’s own philosophies. A closer partnership with the NRWA may very well be forthcoming.