- - Wednesday, March 21, 2018

President Trump recently unveiled his plan to rebuild and revitalize our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Much attention has been paid to rebuilding roads and bridges, understandably so. Our roads and bridges form the essence of interstate commerce in this country and have for some time. Yet, as the president indicated, our infrastructure is more than just roads and bridges — it is also our water infrastructure.

The president’s ambitious proposal calls for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to play a leading role in the administration’s efforts. Through important permitting reforms and localized investments and incentives, EPA would be an integral part of initiating new projects and accelerating current endeavors to completion.

Our nation’s water systems are in dire need of repair. Roughly 700 water main breaks occur across the United States every day — over 200,000 annually. Not surprisingly, in 2017 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our nation’s drinking water, wastewater and hazardous waste infrastructure “D” or “D+” grades.

Then there’s the problem of lead in our drinking water. Lead poisoning is an insidious menace that robs our citizens of their fullest potential. The contamination in Flint, Michigan, awakened much of the nation to the harms of lead in drinking water.

Yet, the problem is far more widespread than Flint. There are an estimated 6.5 million to 10 million homes served by lead service lines in thousands of communities nationwide. EPA’s most recent data shows that within the past three years more than 2,400 water systems have had a lead action level exceedance — a screening threshold that indicates when water systems must take actions to prevent harmful levels of contamination.

We must act quickly and aggressively to address these problems. The president’s plan will enable us to do just that — without raising federal taxes.

President Trump’s proposal calls for $200 billion in federal investment to stimulate at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years in new infrastructure investment. Unlike the previous administration, which spent roughly $800 billion on its stimulus package with little to show for it, this plan will use federal dollars wisely to encourage states and local communities to raise sustainable revenue for infrastructure improvements.

A portion of this funding will be designated for competitive grants under EPA’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater programs, as well as Brownfields and Superfund — two programs dedicated to cleaning up and redeveloping contaminated lands. This funding will allow EPA to begin work right away to repair our nation’s most deteriorating water infrastructure and to restore hazardous waste sites that may pose a threat to drinking water supplies.

The president’s initiative would also make several reforms to promote private investment in an improved management of water infrastructure. First, it would expand project eligibility under the Clean Water State Revolving Fund — a federal and state partnership that provides communities with low-cost financing for water quality infrastructure projects — to include more treatment facilities. Second, it would increase funding for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), a program that accelerates investment in our nation’s water infrastructure through long-term, low-cost supplemental loans. Finally, the president’s plan would expand WIFIA to allow for federal loan investment in Brownfields and Superfund cleanup projects that address water quality contamination.

EPA’s role is even broader than water infrastructure and cleaning up contaminated land — the agency also has a key role in allowing projects to move forward by reviewing environmental impact statements during the permitting process. From subdivision development to skyscraper construction, many state and federal agencies are involved in the permitting process. Currently, duplicative and cumbersome regulations require multiple agencies to all sign off on one project, which can leave projects in bureaucratic limbo for years.

In August, I met with officials with the North Texas Municipal Water District. At the time, they had been stuck in the various state and federal approval processes for a new $1.2 billion reservoir since 2003! That is unacceptable and we are committed to improving and expediting these processes. On Jan. 26, EPA concluded its permit review and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the final permit on Feb. 2. The reservoir, which is anticipated to be operational in 2022, will yield an estimated 70 million gallons of water a day and provide a massive economic boost to the region due to new housing, hotels, restaurants and stores. It will be the first new reservoir constructed in Texas in nearly 30 years.

This story isn’t an outlier. Hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects are currently stalled at various stages, preventing Americans from reaping the benefits of improved infrastructure. That is also changing under President Trump’s leadership.

The president’s proposal would make key permitting reforms that would allow American industry and EPA to work efficiently and cooperatively to get new projects approved and underway as quickly and as safely as possible. Under the president’s “one agency, one decision” goal, EPA would be responsible for issuing a single record of decision for a major project under its jurisdiction within two years. Streamlining permitting processes will allow vital infrastructure projects to move forward.

This combination of permitting and financing reforms will incentivize the free market to apply its genius to fixing America’s aging infrastructure — from new roadways to updating crumbling water systems. The federal government should — and will — remain a partner in infrastructure investments. But states, local governments and industry know best how to meet the unique needs of their communities.

America’s infrastructure was once the envy of the world. The president’s proposal will restore our roads, bridges and waterways to greatness and create a safer, stronger America. Through regulatory reforms and targeted investments, EPA will spearhead the much-needed repairs to infrastructure in a way that provides tangible environmental benefits to all Americans.

Scott Pruitt is the 14th administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Prior to leading EPA, he enforced the rule of law as Attorney General for Oklahoma and served eight years in the Oklahoma State Senate.

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