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New EPA water infrastructure policy seeks to encourage smart growth

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A19

If you build it, they will come. And, if you don't, they won't.

Such is the thinking behind a policy released late last month by the Environmental Protection Agency that instructs states to adopt smart-growth principles in allocating the $3.3 billion in water infrastructure funding that the federal government doles out each year. States, it asserts, should prioritize projects that upgrade the drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in cities over projects intended to serve new developments on the suburban fringe.

The new guidance arguably arrives five years too late -- after a home building boom that swallowed up vast swaths of land. But building will eventually resume, and EPA officials say the leverage of the federal funding -- the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund -- could coax states toward a more sustainable form of development. With so many cities contending with aging water pipes and sewer lines, officials say, it makes most sense to address those needs first.

"What you have now that we're trying to change is that some of the money goes into new [water] collection systems or new treatment plants where there are very few people and that can fuel growth," said Nancy Stoner, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Water. "We're interested in supporting the infrastructure where people already live. It's a focus on making infrastructure sustainable and reviving those communities, reviving cities as attractive places."

The policy is meeting with criticism. Not surprisingly, the National Association of Home Builders has "serious concerns," said its senior vice president, Susan Asmus. "While we recognize the need to repair, replace and upgrade existing infrastructure, this should not be done at the expense of new growth," she said.

The associations in Washington that represent state infrastructure officials say smart growth is commendable but question using the federal funds as a lever. As it is, they note, the EPA requires that states use 20 percent of their federal funds toward "green" projects such as restoring riparian buffers or reducing impermeable blacktop cover. Although sprawl is hardly ideal, they say, failing to expand sewer lines to outer-rim communities could result in overloaded septic systems that pollute groundwater.

"While we want to incorporate these ideas . . . we're concerned about a prescriptive approach that says so much of the money goes here, so much goes there," said Rick Farrell, director of the Council of Infrastructure Financing Authorities. "We'd prefer they say, 'These are things you can do that are good approaches,' and let the states work it out."

Linda Eichmiller, director of the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators, was more blunt. The federal funds are "not a mechanism to accomplish social goals," she said. "It is not going to be able to manage growth."

Jag Khuman, director of the Maryland Water Quality Financing Administration, said the guidance would have little effect on his state, which, he noted, emphasizes smart growth. But he said it could present challenges in states with less of the aging infrastructure that the EPA wants the funds to go toward. And there are often gray areas, he said: If a town is repairing a sewage plant that handles 5 million gallons, should it also expand it so it can handle 7 million gallons, or would that only encourage sprawl?

"That's where you're going to get variable answers," he said.

Kevin Ward, executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, said that in many towns, the authorities that decide how to use water funds have no say in planning and zoning decisions and are simply obligated to provide service to a given district. But the EPA seemed "sensitive to these matters," he said.

Paul Marchetti, director of Pennsylvania's water infrastructure agency, bristled slightly at the guidance, saying that his state has long allocated funds with the input of local governments to discourage sprawl.

"To the extent we have dictums coming down from on high, it makes it potentially difficult for each of the programs to run things in ways that make sense for each state," he said. But the guidance's vague wording reassured him that the judgment would be left at the state and local level.

This is why Geoff Anderson, the president of Smart Growth America, wishes the new guidance were more specific, to really goad states where sprawl predominates. "The EPA ought to be thinking about how to go further," he said.

But he praised the guidance, rejecting the concern about its preventing sewer lines from reaching septic-reliant new development. Septic-based developments should be approved, he said, only if they can guarantee that their septic systems will function over the long term. "The ultimate performance of those septics can't rely on the endless extensions of a wastewater system that we can't even afford now," he said.

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