Local communities need more flexibility to address wastewater and stormwater challenges
By Rep. Steve Chabot and Rep. Marcia Fudge
Communities across the country are grappling with dramatic increases in water and sewer rates. Right here in Cuyahoga County and Cleveland, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District approved a rate increase plan in 2011 that will raise sewer rates by 75 percent over a five-year period.
Elsewhere in Ohio, sewer rates in Hamilton County (including Cincinnati) have increased a staggering 130 percent over the last ten years. An announcement this past November to increase sewer rates by another six percent will only compound the issue, with water rates slated to increase 22.6 percent next year.
Why such huge rate increases? Because local communities are struggling to comply with consent decrees to improve water quality as mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Currently, the EPA takes a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach in enforcing sewer and stormwater standards. In many cases, this tactic unnecessarily drives up costs through expensive, and oftentimes, outdated mandates.
In Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties, for example, the costs associated with EPA-mandated water infrastructure improvements top $3 billion in each county. Such exorbitant costs are making it next to impossible for communities to adequately fund local priorities like police, fire and road repair.
At the same time, it is vital that we take appropriate steps to maintain a safe and clean water supply. The recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which has affected Cincinnati and other communities along the Ohio River, is a tangible reminder of the importance of clean water.
So, how do we continue to maintain clean water without placing unsustainable financial constraints on local communities? We think the best approach is to allow local communities to work with the EPA to find the solution that works best in their respective communities.
Last summer, we introduced bipartisan legislation, the Clean Water Compliance and Ratepayer Affordability Act, to give local communities more flexibility to come up with innovative, less expensive ways to address their wastewater and stormwater challenges.
Specifically, the legislation would authorize 15 pilot communities across America and allow these pilot communities to develop, in consultation with the EPA, their own approach to clean water standard compliance. The same high standards for clean water would apply, but the additional flexibility should allow many communities to meet these standards in a more affordable and cost-effective manner.
Notably, other than minimal administrative costs, the legislation will not increase spending at the federal level, as the EPA will continue to enforce clean water standards in potential pilot communities with or without a pilot program.
The EPA has indicated its interest in such a pilot program, but has not yet undertaken serious efforts to implement the idea. This legislation will not only require the EPA to launch the pilot program, but it will establish the framework for the program as well.
Everybody wins under this bipartisan, common-sense approach. As pilot communities work together with the EPA to find the clean-water solution that works best for them, residents of those communities should get cleaner water at a lower cost. Local communities under consent decrees will be enticed to participate through the cost savings that will potentially accompany the adoption of more innovative and efficient clean-water compliance programs.
Additionally, the innovative approaches developed by pilot communities could be studied by Congress, the EPA and affected state agencies, with the most successful being adopted and deployed on a national scale.
Ultimately, the program has the potential to save taxpayers money, while still maintaining stringent clean-water standards and improving the quality of water for millions of Americans.
At a time when partisan squabbles tend to dominate the news, this is one example of members of Congress from both parties working together to get something done for our communities, and for our country.