Read Amanda Brock’s February Column in GWI
All Trumped up
The US water industry must take the new president at face value – and the rhetoric is encouraging, says Amanda Brock.
In case anyone missed it, the United States has a new president, Donald J. Trump, who was sworn into office on 20 January. In these contentious times, it’s best to focus on the facts as we try to decipher what a Trump presidency could mean for the US water sector. There should be no surprises when it comes to Trump’s intentions; in his first few weeks of office, he is doing exactly what he promised to do while campaigning. He vehemently dislikes any regulation he thinks impedes business, enthusiastically promotes US energy independence and private sector participation, is extremely vocal about rescinding president Obama’s climate change initiatives, and is emphatic that water infrastructure and access to clean water must be a priority.
During his campaign, Trump pledged to develop long-term infrastructure plans to upgrade ageing water systems, and triple funding for state revolving loan fund programmes. This would mean providing SRF programmes with $2.58 billion for drinking water and $4.17 billion for clean water. He assured voters that what happened in Flint, Michigan, would not happen on his watch, and told California voters he knew how to fix their water problems. In ScienceDebate 2016, he argued that clean water may be the “most important issue we face as a nation for the next generation” and that “we must make investment in our fresh water infrastructure”, “explore all options to make desalination more affordable”, and work to “to build the distribution infrastructure” needed.
The obvious question is: how will the Trump administration fund these initiatives? In a document outlining what his administration will do in the his first 100 days in office, Trump states that he will “cancel billions in payments to the UN climate change programs”. He has also talked about convincing the private sector to invest over $1 trillion in public infrastructure projects, incentivized by tax credits. In a measured statement, the executive director of government affairs for the American Water Works association (AWWA) said: “Certainly what we’re hearing out of the Trump Administration is encouraging to the water utility sector”. Others have not been as diplomatic, raising old fears that private sector participation is guaranteed to hamper access to safe sources of drinking water, whilst rewarding corporate greed. The fundamental issue is that we need change in the industry. AWWA has identified the need to spend $1 trillion just rebuilding US drinking water systems over the next 25 years in order to maintain existing levels of service, which at times are questionable. The numbers keep growing, the problems get worse, and we keep talking about it. At the very end of the Obama administration, we were heartened by a late focus on water with the Moonshot for Water initiative. However, it unfortunately came so late that the impact was limited.
So what has president Trump done so far? On his first day in office, all mention of “climate change” disappeared from the official White House website, replaced by the America First Energy Plan, which proposes to roll back the Obama Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the US rule which expanded the rivers, lakes and wetlands protected by the EPA. Trump’s Energy Plan promises “responsible stewardship of the environment” and to return the EPA to its “essential mission of protecting our air and water”. The president has also nominated Scott Pruitt, an avowed foe of Obama’s environmental policies, to head up the EPA. President Trump is determined to implement the platforms he campaigned on. So we can expect more federal funding and private sector participation in the water sector, and the encouragement of public-private partnerships, while needed infrastructure projects will go ahead. We will see change, but it is unlikely we will see the repeal of key environmental statutes affecting water and waste. At the end of the day, it is about balance. Trump is bold and opinionated. But he cares about what the media writs, and he does not want a backlash from his voter base. So while many may not like Trump’s politics, style or approach, perhaps as an industry we should be watchful, cautious and encouraging.