A new “action plan” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlines steps the agency believes should be taken to improve the safety of drinking-water systems across the U.S.
The administration released the plan on Nov. 30, along with an executive summary and recommendations from a report on similar topics from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
Observers say the documents don’t contain many surprises. But they do have some information that could be useful to water-sector firms and utilities in the years ahead.
“This is not a game-changer,” says Scott Berry, director of utilities infrastructure, environment and trade for the Associated General Contractors of America.
“A lot of [the information] feels like setting markers down” as to what the Obama administration’s policies are, Berry says. “It feels a lot more like a political document than an infrastructure one.”
Nevertheless, much of the information could be useful to water utilities, notes Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association.
For example, the idea of utilities partnering to share operations or even purchasing agreements could help them to build projects that otherwise might have trouble getting off the ground.
“There are a variety of ways to partner to get some economies of scale,” Via says.
The documents call for more regional coordination to pool resources for smaller-scale drinking-water systems. They also suggest that utilities consider alternative financing mechanisms, such as public-private partnerships, in planning and building water projects, as well as a new government entity to support R&D in the water sector.
More funding for research could help engineers to develop the next generation of drinking-water technologies, PCAST concludes.
Via says that, much in the way ultraviolet technology developed quickly and now is widely used in drinking-water systems, the next generation of technologies, preferably cost-effective ones, could similarly develop with federal support.
The action plan and PCAST document were developed largely in response to several drinking-water crises over the past few years, most notably the continuing Flint, Mich., situation involving extremely elevated lead levels in the city’s tap water (ENR 10/17/16).
In a Nov. 30 blog post, Rosina Bierbaum and Christine Cassel, cochairs of a PCAST working group, wrote: “These high-profile crises highlight the long-term, national challenges to maintain high-quality drinking water, resulting particularly from continuing and legacy pollution of source waters and an aging infrastructure that is in need of significant repair and modernization.”
PCAST plans to release its full report soon. Taken together, the EPA plan and PCAST report “constitute a comprehensive examination of the science, technology and policy of drinking water,” the working group co-chairs wrote.
It is hard to predict how the incoming Trump administration will view these suggestions. Trump has been “all over the map” in terms of funding for water infrastructure, notes Via.