In November 2001, G. Tracy Mehan, then assistant director
of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Water, addressed
the Environmental Economics Advisory Committee. His presentation, “Building on
Success — Going Beyond Regulation,” outlined reasons for what he called a
“change in paradigm.” Among his remarks were the following:
“Times have changed dramatically.”
“Point source controls alone are not capable of achieving
or maintaining ambient environmental standards.”
“The assimilative capacity of our environment is limited,
and the technological and economic limitations of our existing regulatory
framework are at hand.”
“The remaining water pollution problems are significantly
more complex … when compared with the problems that we have already addressed.”
“Complex problems require innovative solutions and entail
a change in paradigm.”
Mehan was definitive,
and he was not alone.
More than 25 years of
watershed policy literature distinguishes the “significantly more complex”
issues of integrated water resource management and sustaining the integrity of
natural systems within watersheds from the objectives of water pollution
control. The policy literature also recognizes that to achieve the watershed
agenda, changes in institutions and legislation may be essential.
Two different tactics
Point source water
pollution control is authoritarian, predictive, technology-based, uniformly
prescriptive, punitive, and focused on a single objective. The watershed agenda
is collaborative, inquisitive, naturally and community-based, diversely
adaptive, and focused on a broad matrix of variables that characterize the vast
array of interrelationships among human communities and the natural systems on
which they depend.
In the distinction lies
To point out the
difference does not diminish the success of point source water pollution
control. Instead, it suggests that just as the fire on the Cuyahoga River was a
catalyst for the Clean Water Act, the watershed agenda has a similar catalyst
dramatic enough to stimulate an equivalent legislative response: We are burning
too much capital for too little return on investment.
That U.S. cities and
towns are facing a projected wastewater infrastructure budget deficit gap
estimated to be $270 billion is only a part of the issue. Achieving effective
nutrient reductions in coastal zones, providing integrated water resource management
in water resource-threatened regions, and effectively aligning wastewater
management services with ecological and economic development demands also are
The fire this time is
not as visible, but it may be more dangerous.
Turning toward the watershed agenda
We must recognize that
despite the remarkable successes of point source water pollution control, it is
not sufficient to accomplish that which we now must do.
We also must recognize
that we cannot expect an ethos that is prescriptive, skeptical, punitive, and
restrictive to generate the trust, opportunities, and assurances that are
essential to affordably realizing the watershed agenda. We need a legislative
initiative that encourages an ethos that is adaptive, collaborative, enabling,
The watershed agenda opens the focus from the
singular variable of point source pollution control to the plurality of
variables that reveal not only the origins of our difficulties but also the
sources of their resolution.
This shift in focus does
not diminish the pursuit of watershed compliance standards. It provides
communities with the freedom and the responsibility to transcend the focus on
prescribed technical solutions and to open as many of the ways and means
possible — social, ethical, and economic — to address the conditions found in
each unique watershed.
Mehan characterized the
difference as that between a solo instrument and a symphony. We are in pursuit
of a “symphonic” approach to integrated water resource and watershed
Sorting out the challenges
The recognition that we
must change is apparent, but the policy discontinuities between point source
water pollution control and the watershed agenda have not been resolved.
By default, communities,
counties, and states have sought to implement the watershed agenda through the
programmatic structures of point source water pollution control. This has
created many points of controversy, two of which are worthy of note.
First, while communities
have responsibility to meet watershed compliance standards, the departments of
environmental protection have authority over how compliance will be achieved.
Second, the departments also are predisposed by mandate to address nonpoint
source issues, such as nutrient loading to coastal zones, with point source
These two conditions —
responsibility without authority and mandates that redefine natural conditions
to fit protocols — leave communities, particularly small and rural communities,
worried about imposed expenses, including penalties and the risks of
litigation. These unpredictable and adversarial contingencies make communities
reluctant to cooperate.
Altering public policy is
a legislative responsibility. However, the institutions and programmatic
structures of point source water pollution control are so comprehensive in
their design and so universal in their application, so preoccupied with
compliance and so unassailable in their authority that even the legislative
authority that created them seems powerless to modify their mandates.
The price being paid for
these circumstances includes long delays and the dislocation between demand and
its fulfillment. Much of this is documented in 25 years of unfulfilled
comprehensive wastewater management plans, as well as the delays in realizing
the benefits of immediate capital and job formation and their inherent
The reality is that
scale is no longer an inhibitor to compliance. Accordingly, a distributed
approach to sewer enables us to place processing power where it is needed, on a
just-in-time basis and in a centrally managed network. Decentralization is not
an alternative to conventional sewer; rather, it enables us to deploy solutions
rapidly on, off, and around the existing infrastructure. A distributed design
approach to infrastructure quickly will reveal new insights into economies of
technologies, the soil science, the EPA demonstration projects and guidance
documents, and early-stage market illustrations, as well as the private
investment capital to realize an adaptive infrastructure, already are available
in the marketplace.
The tragedy is that a
decentralized architecture is neither preferred nor uniformly accepted, largely
because of the limitations of the codes. The irony is that it exists largely
because of the limitations of the codes.
An adaptive framework for
watershed planning also is available. It simply has to be assembled into an
iterative planning practice. It begins with community and natural systems
interests instead of the interests of the point source design architecture. It
includes consideration for water, nutrient, and carbon footprinting and the
practice of integrating ecological integrity, social equity, and economic
It seeks to leverage
intangible assets, such as sewer ordinances, variances, special legislation,
and a variety of tax incentives and scaling options, into tangible
infrastructure assets. Integrate these aspirations, qualifiers, and assets as
design principles, and they will reveal infrastructure options that will better
serve communities and their supporting natural systems. In Piperton, Tenn., for
example, it revealed a wastewater infrastructure strategy with the capacity to
pay for itself.
We need legislative
initiatives to implement the watershed agenda and to create enabling design and
administrative structures sufficient to meet performance-based standards
without the prescriptive restrictions and associated costs of point source
water pollution control.
We need to end the
politics of neglect with respect to our water resources.
We need to stop straining
community budgets to study problems and litigate outcomes.
We need to consider the
creation of water resource management districts within which all wastewater
management would be a subset.
We need to provide the
aspirations and values in the watershed policy literature with the same level
of legislative and institutional authority that the Clean Water Act provided
for water pollution control.
There is nothing in this
wastewater management initiative that the institutions for health or pollution
control or public and private interest resist. They share common aspirations
for a healthy economy and ecological integrity.
It is a choice we have
already made in 25 years of watershed policy literature. Its implementation is
now a legislative and institutional imperative and our civic and ecological