The political landscape here in DC is increasingly contentious and it is harder than ever to get the attention of our national leaders. For example, when it comes to water we are told that Congress focuses so much effort on the Waters of the US rule because the stakeholders opposing the rule are a far squeakier wheel. How can our sector’s issues compete? How can we be a more effective squeaky wheel?
One way we are doing this is by joining together with over 40 water sector agencies for Water Week. What is the message we are bringing to our lawmakers and the federal government? Our key messages today are much different than those we advanced when I started in the sector 40 years ago; we no longer advocate for major new federal programs but for a new type of partnership – earned over decades. A partnership built on trust where municipalities can chart their own compliance paths (and beyond) for their communities.
We must be the masters of our own fate. Utility leaders are in the catbird seat to shift the paradigm. We must demand as an industry to have decision-making authority over the prioritizing of projects, their schedules, and the type of investments we are making in order to yield the best results for our communities. Communities are paying the lion’s share of the costs; their local officials with local stakeholder input should retain the lion’s share of the decision-making authority over these investments.
Despite a growing array of regional and site-specific issues — drought and reuse, blending, sewer overflows, nutrients, ammonia and whole effluent toxicity, to name but a few — we are hearing a new refrain of ones that impact utilities across-the-board. These include regulatory accretion and overreach that can both hamper innovation and siphon money from needed infrastructure repair or other priority projects.
The issue of affordability/financial capability has bubbled to the top as the gap between the haves and have-nots expands just as service rates must climb higher and higher to meet ever-increasing Clean Water Act program costs. Also, we are just starting to see federal and state authorities realizing they must trust utility leaders as co-regulators and fellow public servants. This is evidenced by EPA Headquarters’ embrace of Integrated Planning and the Utility of the Future initiatives — premised on the notion that utilities can have a far more profound and lasting positive impact if they have the authority and flexibility to chart a course that is best for their communities.
These issues offer an enormous challenge — and of course an unmatched opportunity! With the right message and the right advocacy posture, we can continue to inspire unified action and successful results.