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A meaningful plan is unlikely during the remaining years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Most revealing about the national water strategy announced by recently appointed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is its contrast with her “reputation as a straight shooter,” the defining quality President Obama praised at her nomination.

EPA’s Themes – Meeting the Challenge Ahead, published on the agency website, offers small hope she will reverse the failed water policies of previous administrations or cure the pervasive contamination that has threatened the nation’s human and ecological health for decades.

L-R, EPA Administrators William K. Reilly, Carol M. Browner, Christine Todd Whitman, Lisa P. Jackson, Gina McCarthy.

Before addressing the specifics of Administrator McCarthy’s strategy, some much needed context about that policy history — a timeline commentary by EPA Administrators that is nothing less than a 30-year litany of despair:

September, 1990: “The fact that we see a high accumulation of toxic substances in fish in many of our surface waters, and particularly in the Great Lakes, should make clear to us the size of the clean-up job still to be done . . . [W]e still have persistent environmental problems involving soil run-off containing pesticides and nutrients from farms and other lands and cities.” —  William K. Reilly, EPA Administrator under President George H. W. Bush

April 20, 1994: “Today EPA is releasing a report that shows that 40 percent of our nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams are polluted. Many more are threatened with pollution. This poses a threat to all Americans, all people, all of life itself . . . We need to change our laws to gain greater protection of the water we drink and the water we use for recreation, business, and sustaining our natural world.” —  Carol Browner, EPA Administrator under President Bill Clinton

March 27, 2001: “Despite past progress in reducing water pollution, almost 40 percent of the Nation’s waters assessed by States still do not meet water quality goals established by States under the Clean Water Act.” — Christine Todd Whitman, EPA Administrator under President George W. Bush

January 12, 2010: “America’s waterbodies are imperiled as never before.” —  Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator under President Barack Obama

September 9, 2013: “Progress in advancing clean water and safe drinking water goals in the U.S. is stalled.” — Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator under President Barack Obama

Some additional context about the state of American waters — we have reported on this before (EarthDesk: July 1 and September 25), and likely will again:

  • 40% of rivers, lakes, and estuaries are still not clean enough to meet basic uses such as fishing or swimming. (EPA)
  • 19.5 million Americans are made ill annually by drinking water contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites. (University of Arizona College of Public Health)
  • 41,509 water bodies in the United States are designated as impaired, with more than 25% of those due to pathogen contamination. (EPA)
  • Approximately 17.7 million lake acres and 1.3 million river miles were the subject of fish consumption health advisories in 2010, representing 42 percent of the nation’s total lake acreage and 36 percent of the nation’s total river miles. This does not include all state advisories. (EPA)
  • 40% of the nation’s coastal beaches experienced at least one closure due to pollution in 2012, causing a loss of more than 20,000 beach days. (EPA)
  • Mercury was detected in all fish sampled from 291 streams across the United States. (USGS)

Here is Administrator McCarthy’s strategy for fixing this unrelenting public and environmental health crisis:

  • Reduce uncertainties about the scope of the Clean Water Act;
  • Employ green infrastructure and other locally driven solutions that restore degraded waterways and revitalize communities;
  • Focus resources to decrease pollution to our waters and protect high quality waters;
  • Create new paradigms including state, tribal, city roles and incentives for local action;
  • Coordinate closely with local, state, and regional stakeholders, including elected officials, industry, non-governmental organizations, and environmental entities;

With these accomplished, she states:

We can achieve real, cost-effective solutions to our nation’s water quality challenges. . . Simultaneously, our efforts will protect drinking water from known and emerging contaminants that endanger public health.

But Administrator McCarthy’s plan is timid, its voice feeble, its goal to protect drinking water unattainable. Soft vocabulary such as, “focus,” “paradigm,” “coordinate,” “reduce uncertainty” and “locally driven” are red flags that a meaningful national plan for clean water is not likely during the remaining years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

For example, where are the policy proposals for:

  • A major research and development program to innovate treatment and monitoring technologies and management practices.
  • Economic incentives to induce polluters to perform beyond the minimum requirements of the law.
  • The addition of public health objectives to the Clean Water Act.
  • Priority emphasis on polluted waterways in economically disadvantaged communities.
  • New target dates for achieving fishable, swimmable waters, and eliminating the discharge of pollutants.
  • Massive public funding for upgrading, not just repairing, the nation’s water and wastewater treatment and delivery infrastructure.
  • Development of real-time monitoring technologies that protect water consumers and recreational users in real-time.
  • Increased enforcement
  • Aggressive oversight of states where discharge permit standards are no longer being improved.
  • Mandatory monitoring for emerging pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals, hormones and synthetic musks.
  • A national crackdown on “outlier” polluters such as CAFOs, fish-killing power plants, and industries that discharge toxins through public wastewater treatment facilities.
  • A National Clean Water Commission of blue-ribbon experts in law, engineering, sciences, health, technology, finance and economics to recommend new national goals to replace the tired and expired goals of current federal water laws, and a policy and business plan to implement them.

Admittedly, President Obama and Administrator McCarthy should not bear the full burden of blame when much of what needs fixing requires amendment of four-decade old laws that were not written with the 21st century in mind. Where are the House and Senate when the major objectives of our two most important environmental statutes fail year after year? If they are aimlessly embattled and hopelessly paralyzed, where then is the voice of the straight shooter the president promised?

Administrator McCarthy, it is not too late for you to lead the conversation. The nation’s water laws are badly in need of overhaul. Say so. Congress must wake up to the health crisis that affects every state in the nation. Say so. Fresh-thinking environmentalists, industrialists and technical and policy experts must align to bring you ideas and innovations. Say so.

Acknowledge that progress toward clean and safe water will not happen during your term, or the term of any EPA administrator, without new policies that mobilize technology, management, practices, financing, incentives, public funding and more.

Admit that elimination of pollution promised by the Clean Water Act, and protection from adverse health effects promised by the Safe Drinking Water Act will continue to languish as distant, illusive goals until the slow-motion failure of executive policy and the serial neglect of successive Congresses are halted.

Citizens deserve to hear it from you.

The nation’s waters were “imperiled as never before” when President Obama took office five years ago. And there they remain — “stalled.” Administrator McCarthy’s EPA must use this second term to move national water policy toward long overdue reform. Otherwise, the next EPA, and the American people, will face a mounting decline in water quality, increased threats to health, reversal of decades of progress, and the ultimate squandering of the hundreds of billions of dollars of public investment in clean water that once made the United States the envy of the planet.