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Speeches By EPA Administrator

 

Administrator Johnson, Water Environment Federation’s 78th Annual Conference & Exhibition, Washington, D.C.

10/31/2005
    I want to thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.

    The availability of safe, secure, and sustainable water is essential for public health and the environment – here in the U.S. and throughout the world.

    However, I believe that the challenges facing us as a nation present us with opportunities.

    Water Environment Federation members collaborate closely with EPA staff at both the national and regional levels – and I appreciate your commitment to this issue. These collaborative partnerships are critical as we work to accelerate the pace of environmental progress.

    I would like to talk to you about four of the major challenges I see facing the nation’s water. They include:
      The immediate challenge of hurricane and disaster recovery;
      The sustainability of our water and wastewater infrastructure;
      Continuing to improve our nation’s lakes and streams; and
      Changing attitudes toward water so that we use it more efficiently.

    Within the short span of two months, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and now Wilma, have caused disruption and destruction unprecedented in our nation’s history. As you certainly know, hundreds of water and wastewater systems in the Gulf region were damaged.

    In Mississippi and Louisiana, some facilities experienced significant physical damage due to storm surges and strong winds. Many more were primarily affected by loss of electricity and flooding.

    It has been a top priority of EPA and our states and local partners to quickly re-establish operations at all the affected facilities.

    The response to these disasters has been extraordinary. Many of you as water experts and program managers, have also been working tirelessly to protect the public in the aftermath of these Hurricanes. I extend my gratitude.

    Our Headquarters and Regional offices have been part of a highly coordinated effort to assess damage; monitor environmental effects; and assist state and local efforts to protect human health and the environment – part of which includes helping to restore the vital infrastructure systems.

    In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, staff from our Regional offices moved quickly to provide support to state drinking water and clean water agencies to assess the status of facilities and identify their immediate needs.

    We have also been working with our partners in the states and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct initial site assessments of wastewater utilities. These utilities have been taking preliminary corrective actions to repair the damage to collection systems and treatment plants.

    As anyone who has visited the Region can tell you - restorations, either full or partial, will take time.

    I am happy to report that most wastewater systems in the Katrina and Rita affected areas are operational. While a few are only providing limited treatment, and many are still experiencing significant problems with collection systems, it is a testament to the dedication of many of you sitting in the audience today that these systems are operational.

    We also know that many private on-site wastewater systems were impacted by the hurricanes.

    A large part of EPA’s effort was to ensure that our analysis was communicated effectively.

    So, in addition to our normal public outreach efforts, to date in the Gulf, EPA has distributed around 800,000 flyers to residents and responders on potential environmental and health hazards resulting from the hurricanes.

    To reach more people, EPA is distributing fliers in Spanish and Vietnamese and is providing over 900 radio stations in the effected region with public service announcements.

    I know that I am preaching to the choir by telling you that we need to think outside the box regarding both centralized and decentralized wastewater infrastructure.

    After such a disaster, we appreciate more than ever the need for ensuring that our water and wastewater infrastructure will be sustainable in the future.

    So, as we turn from immediate response to long-term recovery and rebuilding of infrastructure, it will be important to ensure that new construction is sustainable.

    We at the EPA have been talking about sustainable infrastructure for the past few years. A sustainable water and wastewater infrastructure is one of the most important issues facing our nation. It’s not just an EPA challenge … a state challenge … or a local challenge — it is everybody’s challenge.

    What is needed is a fundamental shift in the way we as a nation manage, view, and value our water infrastructure

    The events in the Gulf region present us with a unique opportunity to elevate our dialogue beyond the walls of this convention center.

    Through the eyes of Gulf residents, the nation has seen the importance of our water infrastructure. And as we assist in the recovery, we need to make a long-term commitment to the stewardship of our water infrastructure.

    We appreciate the leadership and initiative WEF has taken in the Sustainable Infrastructure dialogue. Your efforts in this area, including your position statement, “Sustainable Infrastructure for Clean and Safe Water,” works well with EPA’s Sustainable Infrastructure Initiative.

    In September 2002, EPA issued a report that analyzed the gap between clean water and drinking water investment needs and current levels of funding. Our analysis showed that if investment in water infrastructure does not increase, the gap between needs and investments over the next 20 years is potentially daunting.

    Recently, the Agency drafted a Sustainable Infrastructure Strategy to guide our efforts in changing how the nation views, values, manages, and invests in its water infrastructure.

    Our Strategy is organized around four main themes or Pillars: Better Management, Water Efficiency, Full Cost Pricing, and the Watershed Approach.

    Better Management includes the tools to help utilities manage more effectively to reduce costs, avoid risk, and ensure that operations and infrastructure are sustainable in the future. Some of these tools include environmental management systems, asset management, capacity development for smaller utilities, and cost-effective technologies.

    Water Efficiency helps to ensure that water withdrawn from the environment is used wisely and effectively. Water Efficiency will also help to address the funding gap through better demand-side management. I will talk about this more in a moment.

    Full Cost Pricing is critical so that our water and wastewater services are economically-efficient and environmentally-sound over the long-term.

    The Watershed Approach is designed to help utilities, communities, and states make appropriate infrastructure decisions in a watershed that also help to meet goals for protecting and enhancing water quality and public health.

    The infrastructure challenges facing us are daunting, but by no means insurmountable. They can and must be met through a sustained collaboration involving EPA, utilities, states, and other partners, especially those partners in the private sector.

    Through the use of new technologies and effective, innovative approaches – like stewardship and collaboration – we can make better use of our resources, and move the nation’s water infrastructure down a pathway toward sustainability over the next 15 years.

    This is the lesson we're learning in watersheds and ecosystems across the country – as EPA advances regional collaborations of national significance.

    Environmental restoration, whether hurricane-related or not, can carry a huge price tag.

    These large, sometimes staggering numbers overwhelm any one agency's budget and require shared responsibilities among levels of government and the private sector.

    In the Gulf of Mexico, we're following the President's Ocean Action Plan, working with an alliance of Governors and citizens to meet priority needs.

    But the numbers are huge. Some estimate the cost of restoring coastal Louisiana wetlands at $14 billion.

    In the Chesapeake Bay, EPA and other agencies are providing more than $200 million a year but a blue ribbon panel has recommended over $12 billion in new dollars.

    In the Great Lakes, which contain 20% of the world's fresh water, Federal agencies are providing, on average, over half a billion dollars a year for water quality improvements.

    A regional collaboration suggests a $20 billion effort is needed.

    President Bush's 2004 Executive Order on the Great Lakes directs EPA and other agencies to collaborate on finding more effective and efficient approaches to accelerate restoration and protection.

    In Puget Sound, EPA is helping with a multi-faceted ecosystem effort that will identify actions to protect and restore water quality.

    Like other estuaries of national significance, it will require large investments, particularly for wastewater and storm water controls.

    EPA and other federal agencies will continue to provide substantial dollars for these critical efforts.

    Expectations should be realistic, however.

    The bottom line ingredients for success will be collaboration and innovation – finding better ways to advance sustainability and stewardship.

    And there's never been a better time than now for new thinking and cooperation on water use efficiency, particularly in light of the President's commitment to cooperative conservation.

    Finally, I would like to place a significant emphasis on encouraging water efficiency.

    Water demand is outpacing supply in many areas of the country and infrastructure costs are increasing due to strain on aging systems.

    National guidance is necessary if we are to lead our nation to improvements in water efficiency.

    We need to provide consistent, clear information to consumers to help them make informed decisions when choosing water using products.

    Through education and outreach, we can make water-efficiency attainable. We can also help reduce the strain on water infrastructure through decreased per capita and peak water use.

    In addition, at EPA we are focused on developing a program that takes a broad approach to this issue by setting water efficiency levels for products.

    Just as we have done with energy efficiency through our ENERGY STAR label, we would work in conjunction with manufacturers, distributors, utilities and other stakeholders to incorporate water-efficiency levels into product specifications.

    You can look for more on this initiative in the coming months.

    Before I close, I would like to reiterate that we at EPA appreciate the hard work that all of you do.

    We see WEF as one of our most important partners and we look forward to working collaboratively with you in the future to protect public health and the environment and ensure that our nation’s water infrastructure is sustainable.

    Thank you and I hope you have a productive conference.