NACWA Members’ Clean Water Act Success Reflected in EPA’s New Compliance Priorities

HD_EPA_Building(March 12, 2019) - NACWA submitted comments this week on EPA’s proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 – 2023 National Compliance Initiatives (NCIs).

EPA’s proposal includes some important positive developments for the public clean water utility sector.  Most notably, the proposal moves away from addressing sewer overflows through enforcement as a national enforcement priority.  NACWA has devoted significant advocacy effort over recent years to secure this change. 

The public clean water sector has been a primary engine driving the success of the Clean Water Act (CWA), having made huge investments to advance the goals of the Act over the last five decades. The proposed FY 2020 – 2023 NCIs acknowledge this work, along with the significant improvement in compliance and major reductions in water pollution, and return addressing sewer overflows to EPA core programs where permitting, not enforcement, will take the lead. As EPA notes in the NCI document:

Under this initiative, 97 percent of large combined sewer systems, 92 percent of large sanitary sewer systems and 79 percent of Phase 1 municipal separate stormwater systems are now either in compliance or are on an agreed-upon schedule to come into compliance. Accordingly, the Agency believes that this NCI no longer presents a significant opportunity to correct water quality impairment nationwide. The EPA proposes to return work in this area to the core program in FY 2020.

NACWA has long advocated that sewer overflows are better addressed through the CWA permitting program rather than through enforcement mechanisms, and the Association is pleased that EPA now agrees that enforcement should take a secondary role—to be used only as a last resort after compliance assistance efforts have failed. 

NACWA is also encouraged by EPA’s shift in terminology from National Enforcement Initiatives to NCIs to better convey “the overarching goal of increased compliance and the use of not only enforcement actions, but the full range of compliance assurance tools.” 

The proposed NCIs encourage adaptive management with existing consent decrees to allow clean water agencies to adapt “to changing circumstances and new information, such as the increasing commitment of cities to implement green infrastructure, changes in financial capability, or technological advances.” 

NACWA applauds this new approach by EPA and believes an adaptive, prioritized, holistic watershed approach, that addresses all sources of impairment and provides the flexibility necessary to address the reality of a changing world, is the only way to make significant water quality advances moving forward.  The recent codification of Integrated Planning into the CWA, in combination with EPA’s proposed new enforcement approach, will better enable EPA and public clean water agencies to work together to address the most pressing environmental challenges in a more cost-effective and flexible manner.

NACWA congratulates our members for their hard work and resulting CWA success; together we have helped pave the way for delisting the long-time enforcement focus on overflows and shifted EPA’s thinking to a compliance assistance-first approach.  Any members with questions on this change or NACWA’s comments can contact NACWA’s General Counsel, Amanda Waters