Mr. Beacham Goes To Washington

Hopefully, you noticed the ode to classic films in the title of this blog post. It was a nod to the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which Jefferson Smith, played by the inimitable James Stewart, heads to the Senate floor to defend that which he holds dear. John Beacham, PNCWA Government Affairs Chair, led an equally inspired contingent of fellow Pacific Northwest water warriors to Washington D.C. for the 2019 National Water Week Fly-In in April. The twelve-person team attended EPA workshops and visited with several members of Congress from Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. PNCWA's influence in Washington has continued to grow since the first contingent traveled to the nation's capital in 2013. Our membership is recognized as leading subject matter experts and our 1,500 members are a resource for numerous Congressional requests for information on clean water issues. Below is a recap of the visit summarized by members of the contingent themselves. We hope you enjoy their story, learn from their journey, and consider joining the Government Affairs Committee. We'd love to have you in D.C. with us in 2020.

A little background

Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA) has long held its mission to protect and enhance our water resources and disseminate information to both the public and policymakers. Early in 2012, PNCWA realized the importance of having a voice in clean water issues both locally and across our nation. So, under the leadership of President Mark Poling, PNCWA formed the Governmental Affairs Committee (GAC) to one, ensure that the association itself was keeping current when developing legislation, and two, help educate State and U.S. Congressional policymakers on clean water issues. 

 In 2013, PNCWA sponsored the first Governmental Affairs Committee trip to Washington, D.C. during the National Water Week (Fly-in) to visit policymakers from Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Only one member from PNCWA was tasked with visiting a small portion of the policymakers from all three states, consisting of two visits to Washington and three to Idaho. It was during this initial visit that fledgling ideas like WIFIA funding, integrated watershed approaches to advancing clean water, and “Who Is PNCWA Anyway?” were first discussed.

WOW have things changed!

Fast forward to 2019. After seven short years, King County was the first recipient of a WIFIA funding package. Integrated watershed planning is a requirement for some municipalities. There are whisperings of discussions that integrated watershed solutions may get future funding priority (shhh, it’s a secret!). And Congressional representatives and senators not only know who PNCWA is but also are beginning to use our 1,500 members as a resource — GAC members have already received and responded to Congressional requests for information on clean water issues. 

PNCWA’s northwest Fly-in contingent has grown immensely and now includes 12 members of the Governmental Affairs Committee representing all three states. It was a passionate group that represented utility districts, major metropolitan cities, and engineering consultants throughout the northwest. The members were able to provide policymakers specific examples of our challenges and where legislation and funding could support clean water. All in all, PNCWA visited 21 of the 24 representatives and senators from all three states. Next year, we’ll visit them ALL!

From Washington: Caitlin Hubbard (GAC Vice Chair), Tonya Christoffersen (General Manager), and Mariah Low (Commissioner) from Lake Stevens Sewer District; Mike Ollivant (PNCWA Past President) and John Phillips (PNCWA Past President) from Parametrix; Alexander Mockos (CSO Manager and GAC Member) from Seattle Public Utilities and Marcos Lopez (VP and GAC Member) from Tetra Tech;

from Oregon: Bob Baumgartner (GAC Past Chair and Asst. Director Regulatory Affairs) and Dr. Ken Williamson (Director Regulatory Affairs) from Clean Water Services; Greg Geist (Director) with Chris Storey (Deputy Director) both with GAC and Clackamas County Water Environment Services;

and from Idaho: John Beacham (GAC Chair and Public Works Director) from the City of Post Falls.

In addition to the strong attendance from PNCWA was the equally strong attendance from other members of the Northwest and NACWA including the City of Tacoma (Mike Slevin, Director, Dan Thompson, Division Manager, and Alisa O’Hanlon, Government Relations); and King County Natural Resources WTD (Sharman Herrin, Government Relations, and Rebecca Singer, Manager of Resource Recovery).

EPA Updates

The 2019 Fly-in opened with an update from the directors for various departments within the Office of Water. Assistant EPA Administrator David Ross introduced each director after highlighting his own priorities: to develop a Water Reuse Action, focus on workforce development, and continue his committed efforts to coordinate with other federal agencies such as USDA and the Army Corps of Engineering. Mr. Ross also addressed the issue of training not keeping up with technology, which is in line with one of the goals of PNCWA sections — to bring in experts to speak with operators.

Key wastewater issues presented by Director Sawyers remain the ongoing blending rulemaking, an update to affordability guidelines, and ongoing WIFIA efforts, including a recently announced notice of funding availability. Jennifer McLain, the newly appointed Director of the Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, shared EPA’s efforts to assist in lead testing in schools and the ongoing national discussion on PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS.

The Office of Science and Technology generally seeks to develop guidance for states to establish water quality criteria which reflect local water chemistry, so they are targeting guidance on harmful algal blooms by this summer, as reported by Director Nagle. Ms. Nagle also shared they will be publishing the aluminum criteria soon and plan to begin the peer review process for coliphage criteria, nutrient stressors for lakes, and cyanotoxin in preparation for the announcement in 2020. Ms. Nagle noted that the nationally recommended criteria are going to be more complex, like the copper criteria or draft aluminum standard. The complexity allows more site-specific application based on water quality. Sandra Conners, Assistant Director for the Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds, explained they are working on the latest update of the National Aquatic Resources Study, with a framework for more states to assume primacy over Section 404 permitting.

The EPA and Department of Veterans Affairs are jointly working on workforce development strategies across the water sector. Because both the Wastewater and Water Directors see workforce development as a major issue moving forward, they are proposing grants to encourage programs for specifically to bolster workforce development. The correlation between the declining numbers of our aging water and wastewater operations and maintenance personnel and the increasing number of veterans entering the public workforce resonated with the representatives we met in Washington state.

Next, our contingent split up to attend various workshops with EPA staff.

EPA Workshops

PFAS Workshop: EPA staff shared details from the recently released PFAS Action Plan, while attendees shared many concerns with local issues, including a halt on biosolids and compost distribution in Maine and pending drinking water regulations in Michigan.

Watershed Approaches, Trading and Other Efforts to Address Nutrient Pollution: EPA and USDA staff shared information on a variety of planning efforts around large-scale agricultural operations and reducing nutrient loadings to water bodies[1] . Kevin Norton from the USDA made the point that sustainable agriculture is the key to conservation success. Agriculture is interested in trading and BMPs that provide them money and cost of services for nutrient control. Anna Wildeman, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator, encouraged people to keep her in the loop about projects that need a push — to email [email protected],  where a staffer will receive and compile the info, to be addressed weekly.

Reuse: The Reuse workshop shared concepts the USEPA is considering to provide a more coordinated federal view on reuse, including agriculture use, environmental restoration, as well as direct and indirect potable reuse. The workshop presenter[1]  discussed the funding available for the “Grand Challenge” being proposed by EPA and U.S. Department of Energy for resource recovery from wastewater, which proposes to identify visionary goals for resource recovery and provide funding to help achieve those goals.

CSOS and Post-LTCP Compliance, SSOS & Peak Flow Management: EPA shared information on a variety of efforts for providing more “flexibility” for municipal agencies to propose more “watershed” based options in their long-term control plans. These would adhere to the “biggest bang for your buck” approach, resulting in the greatest environmental benefit to the watershed and the communities surrounding them. This significant progress in flexible planning was muted somewhat when it became clear after several questions that the “flexibility” being allowed in planning would not necessarily result in the flexible use of funding dollars in the future. There is much work to be done with local, state, and national, and even within our own professional peer groups before we will see a federally funded implementation of this watershed approach.

Conversations with Congress: A Recap

Prior to meeting with Congressional members and staff, the staff of various infrastructure committees presented their current work. A high degree of optimism was expressed, including for SRF funding in infrastructure bills, whether as a major infrastructure bill or a standalone vehicle. WEF and NACWA staff presented the agencies asks of Congress for the year. An exciting development is a proposed bill by Rep. Defazio of Oregon to reauthorize the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and to increase funding to $4 billion/year.

The PNCWA Contingent met with the following Members of Congress or their staff:

Idaho: Sen. Risch, Sen. Crapo, Rep. Simpson, and Rep. Fulcher

Washington: Sen. Murray, Sen. Cantwell, Rep. Delbene, Rep. McMorris-Rogers, Rep. Newhouse, Rep. Smith, and Rep. Larsen, Rep. Kilmer, Rep. Heck, Rep. Larsen, Rep. Schrier

Oregon: Sen. Wyden, Sen. Merkley, Rep. Schrader, Rep. Defazio, Rep. Blumenauer, Rep. Walden, and Rep. Bomamici

After meeting with Congressional legislators, members of the WEF Government Affairs Committee met to debrief and plan future actions. WEF has provided substantial comments on the update to the blending rule and to EPA’s analysis of affordability guidance, and WEF’s staff are working on position papers for several issues including Groundwater, Climate Change, Infrastructure Funding, and Workforce Development. Importantly, the next year will see a substantial effort at a Strategic Plan for WEF GAC.

PNCWA’s GAC meets monthly. If you are interested in being more involved or in attending the 2020 Fly-in (during Water Week, April 26 to May 2), please reach out to any of the GAC members or to our Chair or Vice Chair, John Beacham and Caitlin Hubbard, respectively.

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