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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks to the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, As Prepared

03/22/2010
Watch the Administrator's remarks to the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

As prepared for delivery.

I want to thank you all for inviting me to be here. Water quality is something I am very passionate about. I’ve studied and worked on these issues since my days as an undergraduate at Tulane. And in graduate school I wrote my thesis on waste water. Throughout my career with EPA and at the state level in New Jersey, I have been involved in water issues that affect communities and touch people’s lives. I’ve seen how far we’ve come – and I know how far we still have to go.

When Congress wrote and passed the Safe Drinking Water Act 35 years ago, they were responding to conditions that seem intolerable today. Many cities and towns lacked facilities to treat contaminated water. 85 to 90 percent of water systems had little or no information on what bacteria or chemicals might be in the water they delivered.

In almost four decades we’ve reached a much better place. In the vast majority of communities, we’ve met the goals for safe water set in the 1970s. But we still face daunting challenges. While we’ve cut the flow of many conventional pollutants into our tap water sources, we now face challenges from other pollutants from less conventional sources. Not the visible oil slicks and industrial waste of the past, but the invisible pollutants that we’ve only recently had the science to detect. There are a range of chemicals that have become more prevalent in our products, our water, and our bodies in the last 50 years. Those many thousands of chemicals are the great unfinished business of the 1974 Act.

We also face serious issues of deferred maintenance in our infrastructure. I know that many of you are doing everything you can with systems that are over-worked and under-budgeted. Many urban communities are struggling to modernize their systems. Rural communities are struggling to meet safe drinking water standards. In places like California, Arizona, Georgia and Texas we see the demand for clean water increasing while supplies are tapering off – or outright disappearing in droughts.

This is where we are: our system is deeply stressed; our financial and our natural resources are limited; and our needs are not negotiable. So, what do we do? I believe that the answer lies in innovation – innovation in the ways we approach drinking water management, and innovation in the technologies we employ.

Forgive the pun, but innovation is nothing new in our field. It has always played a part in advancing our environmental protection and our economic growth. Today we use catalytic converters to cut harmful vehicle emissions. We’ve replaced ozone-depleting CFCs with innovations that are cleaner and less expensive. We’ve seen many systems adopt ultrafiltration and ozonation. These and other advances are ensuring that we meet drinking water safety standards even while we add new users and develop our communities. But the fact is – if we’re going to make our drinking water systems work harder in the years ahead, then we have to start working smarter today.

Today I want to talk about how we harness our nation’s unmatched capacity for invention and innovation to improve drinking water protection. I’m proud to share with you – for the first time – a new vision for providing clean, safe drinking water. We’ve developed an approach that works within existing law and capitalizes on new innovations. The plan doesn’t require more regulation – it uses existing regulations more efficiently and effectively.

Our vision is a way forward that facilitates greater collaboration between government, communities and industry; one that provides cleaner flowing water through a faster flow of information; and one that accelerates innovation across the board. That innovation will promote new jobs, and help us develop new technologies to meet the needs of rural, urban and other water-stressed communities.
That plan is built around four key components. First, rather than working one by one, EPA plans to address water contaminants in groups. Second, we will engage private innovators, entrepreneurs and small businesses to improve drinking water treatment technology. Third, we want to leverage all appropriate authorities – such as pesticide and chemicals laws – to confront and preempt drinking water contaminants. And fourth, we want to work closely with you and all our other state and local partners on up-to-date information sharing, monitoring, analysis and other assistance. Let me take a moment to break out those four points.

On grouping contaminants: so far, we’ve done a good job of looking at unregulated contaminants. But we are identifying new contaminants in drinking water at a much faster rate than we are addressing them. What slows us down is a process that looks at each individual contaminant, one at a time. With more than 80,000 chemicals identified in the Toxic Substances Control Act – and science providing new information every day – we’re not keeping pace with the increasing knowledge we have about chemicals in our products, our environment and our bodies. This is something Congress foresaw in the Safe Drinking Water Act – that the vast number of chemicals in use would grow, and that many would find their way into drinking water supplies. They saw that EPA couldn’t regulate them all individually; and so, ambitious group-wide rules would be vital to manage threats to water safety. In talking with you today, I want to begin a conversation about how we address groups of contaminants. We will be working with you and others in the drinking water community to determine how we define these groups, what technologies are best suited to addressing certain groups, and how we can use grouping to make our systems faster and more effective.

On the second point, engaging the private sector: advances in drinking water technology can make our treatment and monitoring systems more reliable, more sustainable, and more cost-effective. They can also help us plan and implement for the long-term, so that newly identified threats and new technologies don’t mean piling another component onto an already complex treatment chain.

EPA has some of the best water scientists and engineers working in our labs. We want to build on that solid foundation, and engage private sector innovators to develop the next generation of drinking water technology. We will collaborate with universities, technology developers, and other stakeholders to accelerate development and adoption of treatment technologies. We want to set up a series of demonstration projects to test and refine innovations. These projects will bring together utilities, states, technology vendors, and researchers to test products, develop cost and operating data, and optimize monitoring of potential health risks. They will also give us a chance to tackle specific challenges like issues facing smaller systems and rural areas.

There is an important economic component here as well. This is an opportunity to foster incredible innovations that will save money for local ratepayers and local governments – and create jobs in the process. It puts our inventors in the global market for technologies that developing nations with limited water supplies will need to grow their economies. It positions us to lead the way in innovations we will need to adapt to climate change. Supporting technology incubators, competitions, fellowships and grant programs geared towards communities, universities, and small businesses, we can protect health and the environment and spur economic opportunities.

On leveraging all appropriate authorities: we want to take common sense steps that make the most of EPA’s broad-reaching programs. This will allow us to effectively use pesticide and industrial chemical authorities to protect drinking water. Rather than having these programs working in silos, we want to bring them together where they overlap. With FIFRA – the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act – we can use pesticide registration to assess drinking water risks, generate missing data and develop analytical methods for drinking water regulations. Under TSCA – the Toxic Substances Control Act – we can use EPA’s chemical action plans to identify and address drinking water issues posed by widely used chemicals. This means that we can stop contaminants before they get into drinking water – a safer and cheaper alternative to getting them out of drinking water.

Finally, on the point of working with state and local partners: we want to collaborate with you and your colleagues to improve information exchange. When the rules for public water systems monitoring data were written, data literally came to EPA in boxes. Advances in information technology open wide the possibilities for EPA and States to exchange critical information. That will let us do more with the data we have, without burdening you with additional information collection. We want to share powerful tools to better target program oversight, compliance assistance, and enforcement to areas of highest risk. And we want to make the work that we do more interactive and transparent. New communications tools can enable states, industry, and most importantly, consumers to learn more about their drinking water. We envision a system where people will have better access to timely information about the water that’s flowing into their homes.

These are the broad goals of our new drinking water strategy: to efficiently address water contaminants in groups…to engage innovators and entrepreneurs on new technology…to leverage the authorities we have to address drinking water contaminants…and to work closely with you on improved monitoring, analysis and information access. We welcome your ideas on every one of those pieces. We have developed this strategy by looking at the issues we’re facing and playing to our strengths. That means fostering innovation. It means finding win-win-win solutions for our health our environment and our economy. And it means broad collaboration.

We have what we need to make this happen. We’re not re-inventing the wheel or changing the laws. We have tried to think in your shoes, and make the changes that would strengthen our partnerships and improve our service to the American people.

Now we want to hear from you. As this vision is taking shape, I encourage you to be a part of the conversation. You are going to play an essential role in turning these ideas into reality – and helping us move forward into a new era of clean drinking water, and environmental protection. Thank you very much.