The U.S. Conference of Mayors is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move forward with a new Integrated Planning and Permitting Policy, or IP3, that is being discussed as an improvement to the agency's legal enforcement programs for stormwater management and combined sewer overflows.

At a May 31 panel discussion in Washington, D.C., five mayors described the challenges of meeting EPA's clean-water regulatory requirements. Public investments in water infrastructure projects have grown from $50 billion in 1995 to more than $103 billion in 2009; the total from 1956 to 2008 is $1.6 trillion, said Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The EPA has made a concerted effort in recent years to use consent decrees to force municipalities to reduce discharges from combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows and separate municipal storm sewer systems. But that approach is overly legalistic and punitive, said Lima, Ohio, Mayor Dave Berger, a Democrat.

Berger said Lima was in the final stages of an agreement in 2005 with the state of Ohio on a $60-million long-term control plan to address the city's CSO problem when EPA intervened and stopped the agreement. Since then, the city has spent approximately $6 million in legal fees and engineering studies. "EPA is attempting to force us into a consent decree that would require $104 million" in improvements and which would force the city to raise rates significantly, he said.

The mayors said that the IP3 framework would allow for more collaboration and offer cash-strapped cities more flexibility in meeting water-quality requirements through the use of newer technologies and green infrastructure. An approach that relies primarily on the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting process, rather than on legal enforcement, would be the most effective, they add.

"We find ourselves under a heavy cudgel," said Berger. "It's not about the partnership that ought to exist."

Since last fall, EPA officials have met five times with U.S. Conference of Mayors representatives about developing an IP3 framework and expressed an openness to the idea, Cochran said. But they need to flesh out details on the framework.

EPA circulated a draft policy in October. In the draft, EPA noted, "This effort will maintain existing regulatory standards that protect public health and water quality" and emphasized that it would continue to rely on enforcement measures when necessary. EPA also stated that it was not amenable to "re-opening the Clean Water Act."

Cochran said, "The key word here is flexibility."