By Jon Devine, Senior Attorney, Water Program, NRDC
Originally published here
President Trump announced his proposed budget on Thursday. If it were to be adopted by Congress, it would threaten public health and our natural resources enormously. Although this budget is so radical that it has no chance of enactment, it still bears close examination for a couple reasons. First, it provides a window into the values that the Trump administration holds (or, based on this document, lacks). Second, we need to be on guard for attempts to cast the president’s budget as the starting point for discussing the ultimate funding levels, such that Congress seems reasonable by providing more funding than the president would for environmental programs, but cutting them below already-insufficient current levels.
This post examines President Trump’s budget with respect to water programs. I’m sorry to report that it is an unmitigated disaster. It’s no exaggeration to say the administration has declared war on clean water, when one looks at this budget combined with the administration’s rollback of water rules protecting communities from coal mining and its initiation of a scheme to weaken safeguards for a variety of critical water bodies, including streams that feed the drinking water supplies of one in three Americans.
Water Infrastructure Funding: Not What Administration Wants You to Think
Let’s start with the least bad news, as the Trump administration has touted the budget’s alleged “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure.” It is true that the levels that this proposal suggests for EPA’s clean water and safe drinking water infrastructure funds are roughly the same as in recent years.But focusing only on that budget item would be a big mistake, for several reasons.
First, the recent level of investment is woefully inadequate to address the nation’s infrastructure needs; the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave America’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure D and D+ grades, respectively. Second, the budget proposes to cut nearly half a billion dollars from a Department of Agriculture program that supports improvements to water and wastewater services for small rural communities, meaning the federal commitment to water systems actually would be cut. Third, if one looks at keeping these popular programs steady in context of EPA’s entire proposed budget, it means even deeper cuts to agency functions like enforcement, scientific research, and policy development, as my colleague John Walke recently noted.
Agency Staffing: Killing Effective Protections by Dumping Personnel
From that inauspicious start, the president’s budget goes far downhill. Perhaps most strikingly, the overall agency budget cut would, the administration estimates, “result in approximately 3,200 fewer positions at the agency.”
These “positions” are people – public servants with expertise in pollution control and cleanup technologies, environmental monitoring, law enforcement, public health impacts of exposure to contaminants, and more. Tossing them off the agency payroll would mean delays in updating health standards for swimming and fishing in surface waters and for drinking water; it would mean fewer major pollution sources being inspected and more illegal dischargers escaping enforcement; and it would mean less information about the condition of the nation’s waters.
Short-Changing State Water Programs
Not satisfied with cutting the heart out of the federal government’s ability to implement public safeguards, the Trump budget also proposes to make a 45 percent cut to the “categorical grants” which enable state-run water protection programs to operate effectively.
Ordinarily, state and federal pollution control officials’ work acts in a complementary way. States issue most discharge permits for industrial facilities and sewage treatment plants and develop standards water bodies should meet. These and other state actions are subject to EPA oversight and, often, approval. With these cuts, however, both the states and EPA would be starved for basic operating resources.
The categorical state grants in the EPA budget, and subject to major cuts, include:
Public water system supervision – these funds support state drinking water programs, which give technical assistance to utilities, collect and share sampling information with the public, and enforce against violating systems, among other actions.
“Non-point” pollution management – EPA provides grants to states to implement control programs for “non-point” sources of water pollution, like agricultural runoff, which are often poorly controlled but which also can be significant contributors to water bodies’ degradation. According to EPA, “[i]n 2014 there were an additional 11.3 million pounds of nitrogen, 2.7 million pounds of phosphorus, and 1.7 million tons of sediment reduced from nonpoint sources.” Across the country, states have used these funds for projects to restore or improve waters impaired by non-point pollution, resulting in numerous “success stories.”
Wetlands program development – states use these funds for wetland condition assessments, to set water quality standards for wetlands, for voluntary restoration efforts, and to run programs by which states review discharges into wetlands to ensure state standards will not be violated. These grants also support “the Five-Star Restoration Program with other partners. Under this program, approximately 45 to 50 grants will be awarded to provide technical support and opportunities for information exchange to enable community-based restoration projects while bringing together students, conservation corps, other youth groups, citizen groups, corporations, landowners, and government agencies to provide environmental education and training through projects that restore wetlands, streams, and coasts.”
Surface water quality management programs – states use these funds to operate their day-to-day pollution control programs. This enables states to issue permits to discharge, in accordance with industry-specific pollution limits and water body-based quality standards. States also use this support to develop cleanup targets for polluted waters and evaluate the condition of waterways in their states.
This approach – gutting state implementation capacity while also killing EPA’s operations – gives the lie to new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s common refrain that the agency under his leadership will protect water resources while also empowering states. In fact, the Trump administration clearly intends to do neither. This budget, again in combination with the early policy moves the administration has made, reveals that the plan is really just to make drastic reductions in environmental implementation and enforcement.
Geographic Programs: Abandoning National Commitment to Great Waters
To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s budget zeroes out restoration programs for some of the nation’s most iconic water bodies. The federal government serves as a critical partner in efforts to restore several important watersheds, but this budget would have the country shirk these responsibilities, and leave these water bodies’ health to the various states. This approach endangers multi-year, multi-state cleanup initiatives, running the risk that years of investments from numerous stakeholders could be wasted.
Great Lakes: The budget’s irresponsibility starts with the Great Lakes. Though the federal government invested $300 million in the Great Lakes in fiscal year 2016, the Trump administration proposes to spend nothing on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. To give a sense of what that means on the ground in the watershed, just have a look at what EPA said just last year, when the Obama administration asked Congress to provide a quarter of a billion dollars for the initiative. Here’s a partial list of what EPA, together with various partners and leveraging funds from different sources, helped accomplish:
“Over 3.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment has been remediated through GLRI-associated projects.”
“GLRI partners implemented invasive species control activities on over 100,000 acres.”
“GLRI has been central to the Administration’s coordinated efforts to keep self-sustaining populations of silver, bighead, and black carp out of the Great Lakes.”
“Over 1 million acres of agricultural land in the Great Lakes watershed were put into conservation contracts to reduce erosion and loadings of nutrients and/or pesticides.”
“More than 3,800 river-miles have been cleared for fish passage.”
“More than 150,000 acres of wetland, coastal, upland, and island habitat have been protected, restored, or enhanced.”
“For the first time, 100 percent of U.S. Great Lakes coastal wetlands have been assessed.”
“Projects were implemented that lead to 15 populations of native aquatic non-threatened and non-endangered species becoming self-sustaining in the wild.”
Disinvesting from these kinds of programs is not exactly the treatment the nation’s crown jewel water bodies deserve.
Chesapeake Bay: For decades, the approach of leaving the Chesapeake Bay’s fate to the individual states failed people throughout the watershed, including the approximately 13 million people who get drinking water supplied by tributaries to the Bay and the commercial seafood industry that relies on a healthy Bay.
The Bay’s health has slowly improved, however, as states have begun to implement the Chesapeake Bay cleanup blueprint EPA and watershed states established in 2010. The blueprint, as EPA explains, “is designed to ensure all nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution control efforts needed to fully restore the Bay and its tidal rivers are in place by 2025, with controls, practices, and actions in place by 2017 that would achieve 60 percent of the necessary pollution reductions.”
Despite the progress brought on by the state-federal collaboration, the Bay fares no better than the Great Lakes under President Trump’s budget. It too gets nothing, meaning there would be no federal funds next year to help ensure the implementation of the blueprint. Federal funding through EPA provides support for individual projects aimed at reducing the pollutants that threaten the Bay and its tributaries, such as municipal improvements to manage polluted urban runoff. EPA also tracks state progress in implementing their cleanup plans, and exercises an important oversight and backstop function if states don’t keep up.
Other Geographic Programs: In addition to singling out the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, the proposed budget says that the administration intends to eliminate funding for “other geographic programs.” It’s unclear whether that includes all such programs, but if so, it would affect federal investments for restoration efforts in San Francisco Bay, Long Island Sound, the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound, South Florida, Lake Champlain, and a handful of other important resources.
Hurting Under-served Areas
The administration’s budget inexplicably would eliminate two small programs targeted to aid disadvantaged communities.
First, the budget targets a program providing water infrastructure assistance for Alaska Rural and Native Villages. That program, EPA has explained, helps provide “critical basic drinking water and sanitation infrastructure in vulnerable rural and native Alaska communities,” ones which “lack such services disproportionately when compared to the rest of the country.” The program has helped lower waterborne disease and health care costs “through the reduction of exposure to raw sewage and drinking water contaminants.”
Second, the budget would slash a program under which federal funds support improvements in drinking water and sanitation in communities near the U.S.-Mexico border. According to EPA, “[s]ince 2003, the program has provided approximately 65,600 homes with first time access to safe drinking water and more than 626,000 homes with first time access to wastewater collection/treatment.”
In addition, the program assists with targeted improvements – such as upgrades to wastewater plants discharging to north-flowing rivers – south of the border when doing so will address water quality needs in the United States. The administration did not explain why it thinks these projects don’t warrant federal support, and it’s hard to imagine how it could, given the program’s achievements:
The EPA investments in these wastewater projects are protecting public health from waterborne diseases and have been a key factor in significant water quality improvements in U.S. waterbodies, such as the Rio Grande (Texas and New Mexico), Santa Cruz River (Arizona), New River (California), and Tijuana River and Pacific Ocean (California). In both the New River and the middle Rio Grande, for example, fecal coliform levels have dropped by over 80 percent (as a result of jointly-funded wastewater treatment plants built in Mexicali and Ojinaga, Mexico, respectively). California beaches in the border region that were once closed throughout the year due to wastewater pollution from Mexico now remain open throughout the summer, resulting in decreased health risks to beachgoers and an economic benefit for local governments. The Santa Cruz River now supports a healthy fish population where a few years ago only bloodworms thrived.