BLOG 2 Unfunded Mandates or Stuff we should be doing anyway?
In the prior blog, the theme of It’s All One Water was discussed. Our industry has operated with the concept that potable water, wastewater, storm water, runoff, navigable waters, etc are distinct from one another and are somehow different, creating a silo effect. The silo effect obfuscates the current program of drawing water from rivers, streams and lakes, and discharging our wastes to those same rivers, streams and lakes, downstream of our withdrawal point of course. Our local perceptions generally to not allow us to acknowledge that our uses affect other users, one reason that conflicts occur in water basins. Instead the focus is “unfunded mandates” from political circles, whereby utilities are required to meet increasing standards for water, wastewater and storm water treatment. Much of the regulatory focus is on utilities because they are perceived to have deep pockets due to the populations they serve. If everyone pays a little, then it won’t hurt is much is the philosophy. But the reality is that treatment of dilute source waters is often made more difficult as a result of upstream releases. It is easier to treat water before it gets released. The solution to pollution is apparently not dilution. So who should treating these waters?
Perhaps the question is better framed a different way. The concept in the legislation is to have polluters pay the cost for their pollutions, but reality is that the urban users pay the bulk of the costs. Agriculture may create a downstream impact of nutrients, pesticides and herbicides, but controlling runoff is a difficult issue, especially if there are heavy rains just after application of chemicals. It is unclear how you cool water for cooling without extensive energy costs, which would increase energy demands further. And of course rainfall creates runoff as a contribution form the natural system (mostly in the form of turbidity). There is nothing much that utilities can do to control these issues aside from acquiring large tracts of land to control the source. But that does not solve the regulatory needs.
So the responsibility for public health falls on us. As we evaluate regulations, we need to think about responsibility and cause (not costs). The public health issues is much clearer with wastewater plants, where discharge of wastewater could impact both aquatic species and downstream water users. In this case, there are no unfunded mandates – it is local responsibility to insure that the public health is protected near and farfield.
With water plants, well it all depends on the raw water. So cleaner upstream water and less adverse users are better, but most utilities don’t fully control their source basins. So then the key is whether the regulatory mandates meet the public health tests, which may depend on who you ask. Ask this question to women with kids: How much arsenic in your water is ok? You rarely get any answer other than “none.” Why? The public health perception. Cost is rarely the issue, but public health always is a concern. The public expects their utility to do what is needed to clean up the water and places that responsibility on us. Hence there are no real unfunded mandates, although that sounds great to deflect the need for rate increases to other agencies.
So then the question is whether all this discussion of unfounded mandates is an abdication of our public health responsibility. The perception might be reality. If your customers think that meeting regulations or treatment upgrades are being forced on you by others, does that create the question “Is the utility is really putting public health first?” Does it beg the question “why isn’t our utility already doing this?” While every region will be different, how your customers may view your responsibilities is good question to ponder….
As always a great question…
Yes, the term “unfunded mandates” is often just a red-herring designed to direct the public’s anger over paying for something that is necessary towards a different agency or jurisdiction. That term, however, is also often correctly used to illustrate a sort of “kick-the can-down-the-road” mentality. It is a losing proposition when a large, regional jurisdiction (the state or federal governments for example) that has the most control over an issue (say large scale agricultural pollution) abdicates responsibility by requiring a local agency to deal with said issue. Efficiency and expediency are lost. We should absolutely deal with our responsibilities, regardless of who “mandates” them. But we should also vocally advocate for the most efficient way to deal with such responsibilities. We simply can’t afford to kick the can to the only one who can’t say no. We are better than that. Or at least we used to be.