|Thanks, Sandra. Thanks to the Water Environment Federation for inviting me, it’s incredible to be at this conference with 20,000 people working to protect clean water. |
I want to give a shout-out to Dr. Eileen O’Neill, WEF executive director, and Sandra Ralston, president of WEF. This was totally worth the wait, I was set to join you last year, but this conference fell right at the start of the government shutdown. Let’s just say I prefer this year to last. It’s great to be here.
Last month, nearly half a million people in Toledo, Ohio couldn’t drink their water. Algae in Lake Erie produced a toxin that made it into the city’s water supply. For two full days, local business came to a standstill, and many people were forced to drive to the nearest National Guard aid station to fill up whatever containers they could carry. It’s 2014, in the most prosperous nation on earth, yet for two full days, thousands of families couldn’t access life’s most basic necessity.
This should be a wake-up call. Our health, our economy, and our way of life depend on clean water.
The good news is, we’ve beaten back challenges like this before. In the 1970s, 2 out of every 3 of our waterways were unsafe. But the Clean Water Act and your efforts changed the game. Today, 2 out of 3 of our waters are healthy. Over that time, the U.S. economy tripled, which goes to show environmental protection doesn’t stifle economic growth; it strengthens it.
Our need for clean water hasn’t changed, but we face new challenges. Nutrient pollution is threatening waterways across the country. Climate change is bringing warmer temperatures, rising seas, and harsher droughts and storms. And if that wasn’t enough, our nation’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure needs more than $635 billion in repairs over the next 20 years. Those challenges sound daunting, and frankly, we need to supercharge our efforts. Luckily, I’m in the right room, with the right people, to meet those challenges.
What happened in Toledo was just the symptom of two larger problems. Nutrient pollution, and the toxic algae it feeds, is a challenge all over the country. So is financing water infrastructure, the treatment plants, pipes, drains and concrete that move water to and from our homes, are falling apart. As budgets get squeezed, needed improvements get put off. So in the last few weeks, I’ve spoken to state environmental managers and to mayors of Great Lakes cities. I told them we have to work together and share our skills and smarts. Toledo wasn't a surprise event, and Toledo wasn't alone, in that the challenges are large, and the resources are small.
Clean water isn’t just a health priority, it’s an economic necessity. In the same way, the Clean Water Act isn’t just an environmental success story, it's one of America's greatest economic triumphs. Two decades ago, Boston Harbor was known as "the dirtiest harbor in America." I should know, it was my backyard. But today, thanks to the Clean Water Act and decades of innovation, Boston Harbor is one of the most visited and recreated places in New England. And now it's an economic bright spot in the nation, and a world class city. Ask any mayor of Boston, and they'll tell you: cleaning up Boston Harbor was the best investment they ever made.
So the Clean Water Act is just as much about healthy economies as it is about healthy people. That’s why we have to make sure that law can do what it’s supposed to do. But right now, thanks to 2 confusing Supreme Court decisions, 60 percent of our nation’s streams and wetlands lack clear protection under the Clean Water Act. In fact, one in 3 Americans get drinking water from sources at risk.
These streams and wetlands filter pollution, reduce flooding, and recharge groundwater supplies. And we know our iconic waters, like Boston Harbor, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Colorado River, won’t be clean unless the streams and wetlands that feed them are clean, too. That’s why this march, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a rule to fix the problem. We’re protecting those streams and wetlands vital to downstream water quality.
But as with everything EPA does these days, there are some misunderstandings out there, confusing what our plan is all about. Some say we’re trying to regulate every puddle on your lawn. This summer, we even heard we would somehow cancel 4th of July fireworks! Please. As water managers, regulators, and technicians, this rule is foundational to the work you do. The public comment period for the proposal is open until October 20 and we want you to weigh in to help us get to a strong, achievable final rule.
Protecting water is a no-brainer. But the complex new challenges we’re facing demand creative solutions. Our changing climate is changing the way we think about our water. The need to act on climate, and build more resilient cities, is crystal clear. Hurricane Sandy showed that even great cities like New York are vulnerable to climate impacts. If we don’t act, by 2050, more than $100 billion dollars of coastal property could be submerged. And when you add up the wetlands Louisiana loses every hour from sea level rise and extreme weather impacts, it’s the size of a football field.
So we need new solutions, modern ways for cities to handle water problems. At EPA, we have tools to help state and local governments weave climate change into their decisions. Today, I’m happy to announce a new flood resilience guide to help water utilities find cost-effective ways to limit flood damage. At the same time, we have to fix aging infrastructure by revisiting how we invest in our wastewater and drinking water systems. The success of our state revolving fund investments is unparalleled. We’ve provided $126 billion dollars in assistance to 44,000 communities. But we need to do more, and we need to be more creative.
The SRFs are more than direct loan programs. They’re job creators and public health protectors, and these investments pay hefty dividends. but we need more than SRF's to make this transition happen. Communities are also using green infrastructure to improve water quality, save money, attract jobs, and make cities more resilient to climate impacts. To recognize leading communities, I’m announcing an agreement with WEF to establish a national municipal stormwater and green infrastructure awards program.
We can no longer afford to look at water challenges in isolation. That’s why EPA is promoting integrated planning, so cities can prioritize wastewater and stormwater projects, and get a bigger bang for their buck. Later this fall, we’ll offer technical assistance to more than 20 cities to jumpstart this process.
We’re also committed to driving innovation and technology, and that’s where you all come in. EPA has provided $250,000 dollars to support the development of the Leaders Innovation Forum for Technology and Stormwater Testing and Evaluation for Products and Practices. For years, with smart policies, and innovators and technicians like you, we’ve been able to improve water quality while cutting costs.
America has a legacy of innovating world-leading environmental technologies. The U.S. Department of Commerce found that in 2011, the U.S. environmental industry generated about $320 billion dollars in revenues, employing 1.7 million Americans.
We need smart investments, and smarter innovation. The President's Climate Action plan recognizes that water is the first place where we'll feel climate impacts. Don't tell me facing our environmental challenges causes economic problems--it's part the economic solution. Water equipment and chemicals make up the biggest piece of the environmental technology pie, accounting for $10 billion dollars in export revenue in 2009 alone. And when we sell to other countries, your industries help solve water problems around the world.
We know our challenges are linked, so we have to treat them that way. When we invest in infrastructure, it needs to be climate-ready. When we act on climate, we’ll help reduce harmful algal blooms. And when we cut pollution, from nutrients or traditional sources, we grow our economy and give communities better places to live, work, and play. EPA needs to step up with you, to develop new business models to give folks more elbow room to innovate and grow.
Whether it’s climate change, nutrient pollution, or strengthening legal protections for clean water, our work to protect water needs our attention more than ever.
I want to thank you for the great work you do every day. Your role has always been key in the story of America’s success in cleaning up our water and strengthening our economy. But I want to challenge us to go further. Let’s not be satisfied with just reducing pollution, let’s work to eliminate it. Let’s not be satisfied with 2 out of 3 clean waterways, let’s clean them all. Just like we have for decades, if we work together, we can do it. Thank you.