E&E News reported yesterday that the U.S. Conference of Mayors has requested a “moratorium” on Clean Water Act enforcement of stormwater limitations on municipalities. The report makes clear that the Mayors avoided an attack on either the CWA or the current EPA administration. Moreover, they acknowledged that there is still “much to be done to protect our water resources.”
Why the moratorium request, then? Two words – they’re broke. One of the mayors who spoke was Michael Bissonnette of Chicopee, in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts. According to Mayor Bissonnette, the cost of stormwater compliance in Chicopee will be $200 million – this for a City of 55,298, with an annual budget of around $150 million. As Mayor Bissonnette noted:
"No wonder there are populist uprisings. It's simply unsustainable."
The response to the environmental groups? According to E&E News, Jeffrey Odefey, from American Rivers, said that:
"Providing the quality and security of water services that our communities expect will require meaningful reforms to the way many cities and towns finance, pay for and build water infrastructure for tomorrow, not political relief from the Clean Water Act."
I cannot argue much with that. He’s pretty much got it right, and that’s why this is such an important issue. We can argue around the edges, but I’m pretty sure that a cost-benefit analysis would show that we should be doing more to address stormwater discharge impacts. At the same time, the mayors are correct; municipalities just cannot pay for these expenditures at this point. And if anyone thinks that the federal government will bail out the municipalities with a massive new public works program, I want some of whatever they are taking.
I note this issue, both because it is important in its own right, and also because it is exemplary of broader problems with public infrastructure. The private market is not going to fully finance public goods – that’s in the nature of public goods. We have plenty of analyses showing that all sorts of infrastructure spending can be justified on a cost-benefit basis. We don’t have the political will to finance those expenditures.
In the meantime, the CWA remains on the books. Even if EPA were to implement a moratorium, who is going to tell the Sierra club and other environmental NGOs to stop filing citizen suits?