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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and Water Environment Federation 2009 National Clean Water Policy Forum, As Prepared

05/04/2009
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you for inviting me to be here today.

Many of you know that joining the EPA as Administrator is a return home for me. I started my career as a staff level scientist in the late 80s and worked with the agency for 16 years.

Of those 16 years, 13 of them were at the regional level. I also served as the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

That experience helped familiarize me with many of the issues you face at the local level.

I’ve seen first-hand the work it takes to coordinate federal, state, and local efforts. I know how important strong communication and partnerships can be.

So I’m glad we have this chance to speak, and strengthen our partnerships. I want to make sure we are doing the best work for the people that we serve – and this is how that happens.

In the few months since I started as Administrator, I’ve come to a number gatherings like this. I’ve spoken with advocates, officials, and reporters. And each time I’ve tried to send one very clear message: that EPA is back on the job.

It’s a good message – and one that my 18,000 EPA colleagues across the country have been working hard to prove.

But I think it’s a message – and a mission – that needs to be updated.

By now, being back on the job isn’t enough. It’s time to take it a step further.

I’m here to tell you that not only is EPA back on the job. EPA is leading the way.

We have to start turning the tide, and changing the direction of our most pressing environmental challenges.

That means a strong reinvestment in our core principles – “meat and potatoes” issues like water quality.

Water quality, whether it’s drinking or wastewater, has tremendous impacts on quality of life, on economic potential, and on human and environmental health in our communities.

Unfortunately, something as straightforward and valuable as that – something we would tend to take for granted, especially in the year 2009 in this country – is anything but assured.

EPA has an ambitious vision for our water quality in the years ahead. I want to see a huge leap forward – like we saw in the 70s after the passage of the Clean Water Act.

It won’t be easy. But there are gains to be had in the next few years. And those gains will have increasing returns in 10, 20, and 40 years.

As a start, we must recognize that the issue is evolving.

Putting more money into the same infrastructure and the same programs is not going to get us where we need to be.

If we’re going to lead the way, it’s going to take creativity, innovation and foresight.

And in that way, water quality is a perfect example of the work we have ahead of us in so many areas. It’s an area where we have some exceptional challenges, but also some incredible opportunities.

I recently had the opportunity to be part of a panel with William Ruckelshaus, who some of you may know – or remember – served as the very first EPA Administrator.

On the panel we discussed how the “low-hanging fruit” of water protection has, for the most part, already been addressed.

Years ago, we knew something was wrong when algae began to coat rivers, when the smell from untreated sewage reached our communities, or when fish kills appeared in lakes and streams.

Back then, if you wanted to know if your river was polluted, you lit a match. If the river caught on fire: polluted. If not, you we’re probably okay.

Administrator Ruckelshaus put it well when he said that environmentalists in the 1970s could talk about problems that people could see, touch, and smell. When it came to water, a lot of times they could taste the problems too.

Today, the portfolio of pollution and other challenges is different. Chemicals seep into our water supply from a variety of less-conventional places.

We’re working to confront non-point sources of pollution like stormwater and household wastes, agricultural and livestock runoff, and pharmaceuticals.

The further study of chemicals that can act as endocrine disrupters is demonstrating a growing problem. And of course, PCBs and mercury are ever-present concerns.

We are being proactive about detection and prevention. But resolving some of these issues without single major sources, and without single visible effects, is a new challenge.

We also face challenges of coordination.

During the transition, I remember hearing an alarming figure that EPA staff spends almost half and sometimes more of their time working with states to determine whether they have jurisdiction to issue a permit or to take an enforcement action.

These are cases where there is a visible impact to water quality. But there is little clarity on whether or not “water” means water, or what wetlands are or are not regulated.

We also see cases where our challenge is to move beyond traditional roles as regulators or enforcers and try to communicate that sense of shared purpose and individual responsibility.

Take for example something that happened recently in Spokane, Washington. Spokane has put in place a near-total ban on dishwasher detergents containing phosphates.

Spokane took action because the chemicals were reaching the Spokane River and leeching oxygen, killing the fish and other life.

But some of the residents of Spokane – people who no doubt care about the environment – began driving 45 minutes and crossing into Idaho to buy bootleg detergent – the kind with phosphates.

They believe it works better. And they don’t see the immediate connections between cleaner dishes and a dirtier river.

So some of the challenges ahead of us are that water quality protection is no longer simply an issue of the Agency cracking down on big polluters.

Today, household items that you and I use every day have long-term impacts on our environment. We’re not going to step in and regulate every dishwasher.

So we have to do a better job of educating people, of facilitating communication and collaboration between individuals, communities and businesses.

We have to put environmental protection in the hands of the people – help them help themselves, as the saying goes. And that is something you can do with particular effectiveness at the local level.

I believe we are up to the new challenges we face.

There are amazing ideas out there that can be put in place – and not just new technologies or down-the-road solutions.

One thing we can do is work with Mother Nature, not against her.

One thing that does a great job for waters is a vegetative buffer – a place for all that runoff to pass through so that solids can get slowed down and knocked out.

There other novel solutions the can be easily implemented: Green alleys, green roofs and rain-collection systems, can re-use and recycle stormwater through local waterways.

The great news is that we have a lot of support.

With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, EPA is responsible for investing over $7 billion in “shovel ready” projects that protect human health, safeguard the environment, and grow green jobs in our communities.

Billions of dollars are being invested in clean and drinking water programs in the states – primarily through the State Revolving Funds.

Along with the Recovery Act, the budget looks like it’s going to have the highest level of funding support that EPA has seen in its 39 year history.

That includes significant new investments in wastewater infrastructure, with funding for rebuilding and improvements that will also create thousands of jobs.

Right now, we have greater opportunities to protect public health and the environment than any other time.

Now, more than ever, we must be innovative and forward looking.

Both EPA and NACWA we’re formed in 1970, which means we are both heading towards our 40th anniversaries.

As we near those benchmarks, EPA, NACWA, and WEF should all be thinking ahead to the next 40 years.

What challenges do we face in the immediate future and over the long-term? What are the water quality issues going to be decades from now?

How can we be proactive about heading off environmental issues, rather than reactive to problems that arise?

And how do we create a lasting foundation for the next generation of leaders, those who will take on our responsibilities in the years to come?

The environmental challenges faced across our country are immense in scale and urgency. But they will be met.

The EPA is once again guided by an ambitious vision of public health protection and environmental preservation. And as partners you are essential to that vision.

I can’t think of a higher calling then coming back to EPA to work with our partners to address the urgent, ongoing and – in many cases – long overdue environmental issues our nation faces.

We have the support. We have the moment we need. Let’s make the most of it.

Thank you very much.