Administrator Gina McCarthy, Remarks at the American Water Summit, Miami, Fl, As Prepared

December 7, 2016


Thank you, Ian, for that introduction.

And thank you to everyone at the American Water Summit for the warm welcome.

I'm here to talk about the future of water, which I believe is one of the top public health and economic challenges now facing our country. This is a moment of opportunity – to drive smart, equitable, resilient investments to modernize our aging water infrastructure; to invent and build the technologies of the future; and to protect our precious water resources.

To seize this opportunity, we need urgent and sustained action at all levels of government and from all sectors of the economy.

(Protecting Source Water)

We're seeing this play out right here in Florida. The state made national news last summer when toxic algae infested waterways and coastlines, threatening public health, hampering recreation, cutting tourism, and imposing huge costs on the local economy. Florida was under a state of emergency.

The nutrient pollution that fuels these toxic algal blooms isn't limited to Florida – it is one of our country's most widespread and costly environmental problems. Some 16,000 waterways are impaired by nitrogen and phosphorus.

Last year, there was an unprecedented 650-mile long algal bloom on the Ohio River. And in 2014, Toledo had to shut down its drinking water system for days because of a bloom on Lake Erie. Elsewhere across the country we are seeing ground and surface sources of drinking water threatened by unregulated legacy contaminants like PFCs.

This is a wake-up call. We have a serious problem – and we must do more to protect our vital source waters.

Source water protection is one of the key reasons why the Clean Water Rule, which I signed in 2015, is so critical. It clarifies protection for 60 percent of the nation's streams and millions of acres of wetlands – those upstream waters that feed into drinking water supplies for one in three Americans – 117 million people. The rule is grounded in law and the latest science.

But EPA can't solve threats to source water through federal action alone. Nutrient pollution comes from many sources including agricultural and other non-point sources that are not regulated under federal law. For example, stormwater pollution is a major problem in hundreds of communities across the country that requires smart land use and investment decisions at the local level.

Proactive action to protect drinking water sources and prevent contamination before it happens needs to be a top priority in every community. States and local governments are central and must play a leadership role in this effort. All industries, agriculture utilities and the public need to get involved and do their share to protect this critical resource. 

(Investing in Infrastructure)

Florida also reflects another key challenge facing the water sector – that of aging and inadequate infrastructure. In Florida alone, $34 billion is needed to repair and expand the systems that move and treat wastewater, stormwater, and drinking water.

Our nation collectively needs about $685 billion in investment over the next 20 years. This need is particularly acute in low-income and economically distressed communities – both urban and rural – many of which are struggling to provide safe and reliable basic water services.

We've known for years that our nation's investments in water infrastructure aren't keeping up. We need to invest more. We need to make the infrastructure dollars we have work smarter and harder. And we need to make sure these investments are equitable and prioritize the needs of distressed communities like Flint that are falling behind.

That's why EPA created the Water Infrastructure Resilience and Finance Center – a "think-and-do-tank" that's dedicated to driving innovation in water infrastructure finance and helping communities in need.

We've also laid the foundation for implementing the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA – a new program that has the potential to provide billions of dollars in low-interest loans to support large infrastructure projects. Just yesterday we finalized the administrative structure for the program and will await appropriations from Congress.

Going forward, there's broad agreement that infrastructure investment is a top national priority. We need to make sure water infrastructure is at the center of that effort. And we need to make sure that this investment is made in a way that benefits the communities that need it most – including by building the capacity of low-income and small communities to get access to funding and to safely and sustainably manage their infrastructure. 

(Drinking Water Safety is a Priority)

It's not just physical infrastructure that needs to be upgraded. The country needs to modernize our collective work to provide safe drinking water on which public health and our economy depend. 

EPA has set drinking water standards for more than 90 contaminants, and compliance data show that more than 90 percent of the nation's water systems consistently meet those standards.

But what about the other 10 percent of the nation's water systems that don't meet all the standards all the time? And we still have thousands of people in this country – primarily in disadvantaged communities – that face serious challenges with access to safe and reliable drinking water.

That's why last week we released a Drinking Water Action Plan that serves as a national call to action, urging all levels of government, utilities, community organizations, and other stakeholders to work together to increase the safety and reliability of drinking water.

This plan was developed through extensive engagement with states, tribes, local governments, utilities and other stakeholders and it enjoys broad support. It maps out a set of concrete, practical actions that together have the potential to dramatically strengthen drinking water safety:

  • Like establishing a 21st century electronic reporting system that gives regulators and the public prompt accurate information on drinking water quality.
  • Like supporting regional partnerships so utilities can band together to more efficiently and safely manage water infrastructure.
  • Like promoting watershed partnerships to protect our source waters and driving new monitoring and treatment technologies to address unregulated contaminants.

(Climate Change Makes the Work Tougher)

As we chart a course forward, we have to recognize that the greatest environmental challenge of our time – climate change – is hitting the water sector hardest.

We're seeing this in more frequent and more intense droughts, stronger storms, flooding, sea level rise, and ocean acidification. This makes all of our efforts more difficult and more critical.

This conference is being held at an epicenter for these impacts.

The rate of sea-level rise in South Florida has tripled over the last decade, according to a study from the University of Miami.

Local officials are responding by making areas like Miami Beach more resilient, with new sewers and pumps and modifications to major roads.

Meanwhile across the country…drought has led to wells running dry in California's Central Valley, Superstorm Sandy decimated the New Jersey coast, and we've seen historic floods hit numerous states. These impacts are costing us billions of dollars and threaten public health, our water infrastructure, our drinking water supplies, and our treasured water bodies.

Climate change has become a national security challenge – the Pentagon has been vocal about their concerns and in September, the President directed federal agencies to ensure that climate change is addressed as part of national security policy and plans.

As climate impacts increase, it is not just likely that water shortages will drive international conflicts, but it could well lead to difficult debates among regions, states, and communities here in the U.S. Resilience to its impacts is fundamental to the well-being of our nation.

(A New Way Forward)

It feels like in some respects we're just treading water against these challenges. How are we going to swim instead of sink? We need a paradigm shift in how we view and use water.

We need to move away from the narrow 20th century view of water: as a place to dump waste; as something to just treat and send downstream in pipes; as only an expense for cities and a planning burden for communities.

We need to accelerate the move to a 21st century view – where we see water as a finite and valuable asset, as a major economic driver, as essential to urban revitalization, as a centerpiece for innovative technology, and as a key focus of our efforts to build resilience.

This shift presents tremendous opportunities – to revitalize communities, to grow businesses and jobs, to improve public health. But to achieve it, we must make water a top national priority – and we need to be bold and revolutionary.

We need to drive innovation across all dimensions of the water sector: in technology, finance, management, and regulation.

We all see how science, technology, and innovation are opening new frontiers, fueling the economy, and changing our world. We must incubate this change in the water sector as well because both the challenges and the opportunities are vast.

Consider that the nation's wastewater facilities discharge approximately 9.5 trillion gallons of wastewater per year. Utilities are increasingly turning to technologies and approaches that foster greater reuse of water and recovery of resources that were previously discarded as waste.

Look at Orange County, California, where they are generating over 100 million gallons per day of recycled water. Instead of just discharging that water into the Pacific Ocean, that ultrapure water is used to replenish groundwater in Anaheim, injected to ward off saltwater intrusion in Fountain Valley, and as an indirect source of tap water to 2.5 million people in the county.

Look at the opportunities for energy efficiency and recovery, key areas for our planet's long-term sustainability. The water facilities nationwide account for as much as 4 percent of national electricity consumption, costing about $4 billion a year. Now we see utilities producing energy instead – while slashing costs and carbon emissions at the same time!

Look at Gresham, Oregon, where the wastewater plant has become a net zero facility – using biogas generators and solar panels to produce more energy than it needs. Not only is that saving city taxpayers half a million dollars per year, but last year the city also earned $250,000 from fees local restaurants are paying to drop off fats, oils and grease.

These opportunities to harness innovative technology aren't just good for public health and the environment – they can be enormous economic drivers.

In 2015, the global market for environmental technologies goods and services was more than $1 trillion. The United States environmental technologies industry exported $51.2 billion in goods and services. This same industry supports an estimated 1.6 million jobs here in the U.S.

So the soundbite that protecting the environment is bad for the economy is just patently false. It's actually the opposite.


As our nation heads into a time of transition, we need to remember that water is a nonpartisan issue. We all depend on clean and reliable water – our families, our communities, our businesses, our society.

So, it should come as no surprise that in a Gallup poll last spring, people were asked about their environmental concerns – pollution of drinking water and pollution of rivers and lakes were the top two concerns … people care about water.

Right now, this is an all-hands-on-deck issue. To confront the challenges we face and to seize this moment of opportunity, we have to work together – all levels of government, all sectors of the economy, every community. EPA stands ready to partner and to lead in this effort – so let's do it!

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