As the Trump administration plans to curtail regulation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investment, oversight and enforcement, design firms in the environmental sector may worry about the market. But many hope state and local mandates, constituent needs and technology will fill the gaps. 

Noting the Trump-proposed 31% cut in EPA funding for next year—the largest for any federal department—and the elimination or downsizing of several agency clean-water programs, Anthony Bouchard, CDM Smith’s North America president, says, “It’s vital for environmental industry leaders to continue actively communicating the value of water and infrastructure.” He says the water-wastewater investment boost is unclear in Trump’s infrastructure program. Industry also is skeptical about whether the sector will gain from private funding, since with many smaller public systems, megaprojects that typically attract P3 investment are fewer, he notes.

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But customers seeking high-quality, low-cost solutions will continue to depend on industry firms. In a new survey of nearly 425 utility professionals, Arcadis North America found that 90% said innovation was imperative to improve operations, while only 40% now embrace it as a way to do business. “There is no road map for them to follow,” says Jason Carter, firm innovation expert. Arcadis, working through two water research groups, developed an eight-step guide for utilities to implement innovation that “generates sustainability dividends,” such as better demand management.

Starting construction shortly in the Houston region, a $1.2-billion upgrade of the Northeast water purification plant will expand it to 400 million gallons a day from 80 million mgd through 2024 and cut reliance on groundwater. Design-construction-operations team CDM Smith and CH2M calls it the largest progressive design-build project of its kind underway in the U.S.; it will include adaptations for variable raw-water conditions and cost savings for power, chemicals and residuals disposal. Hazen & Sawyer is leading a $25-million demonstration, along with CH2M, in the Hampton Roads, Va., area to test aquifer recharge and other approaches that would be a first on the East Coast and could generate $1 billion in future plant projects, says local utility engineering manager Bruce Husselbee.

TetraTech has seen more interest in water-distribution assessments since the Flint, Mich., tainted-water crisis began in 2015, says Executive Vice President Leslie Shoemaker. The firm also notes a gain in water-reuse projects in southern states where supply is constrained. In May, Santa Barbara, Calif., reactivated a desalination plant, idle since 1992; it now will supply 30% of demand. But one global desalination forecast predicts the sector’s five-year growth will fall below 5% for the first time in 20 years, due to financial issues in Middle East countries.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has promised to accelerate Superfund cleanups of hazardous waste, but a proposed 2018 budget cut in the program raises skepticism that it will happen. If the EPA moves ahead on changes pushed by industry, coal-ash disposal and new protections for wastewater impoundments at power-plant sites—except in states with their own mandates—also face regulatory limbo. Black & Veatch Associate Vice President Andy Byers says some utilities are going ahead with ash-pond closures under current federal rules, but others are taking a wait-and-see attitude.