June 2013, Vol. 25, No.6


Closing the infrastructure gap by opening the policy options

The economic potential in the watershed agenda

Craig Lindell

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 the opportunity. 

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 essential requirements. 

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, and resilient. 

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 management. 


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 solutions. 

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. 


Thinking smaller  

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 multiplier effects. 

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 scale. 

Moreover, the 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 affordability. 

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. 


For progress  

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 responsibility. 


Craig Lindell is the founder of Aquapoint Inc. (New Bedford, Mass.), a member of the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) Small Communities Committee, and a director of the Institute for Twenty First Century Agoras, a nonprofit focused on engaging highly complex issues with democratic decision-making software and design processes.