To finally determine a sustainable definition of waterways eligible for federal protection under the Clean Water Act, the new Water Director of the Environmental Protection Agency said everyone affected by the issue will need to be involved.
Radhika Fox recently spoke to The Associated Press about the Biden administration’s plan to rewrite the regulations, also known as Waters of the United States. The contentious rule was reduced by the Trump administration after it was extended under President Barack Obama.
Fox joins the EPA as water issues became a priority under President Joe Biden. She was previously CEO of the US Water Alliance conservation advocacy group and director of policy at the San Francisco Utilities Commission.
Fox also spoke about the goal of the infrastructure plan to phase out lead pipes and remaining service lines in the country, which pose a risk of contaminated water in homes and schools. And she spoke about the importance of diversifying water sources in dry areas, for example by recycling wastewater and capturing stormwater.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Regarding the Clean Water Act, how does the administration seek to balance the interests of farmers, ranchers, developers and environmentalists?
A: If we look back 50 years ago, what really inspired us to create the Clean Water Act was that the rivers were literally on fire because the pollution was so bad. To your question about how we plan to come up with a sustainable definition, it’s really to do it in partnership. The only thing about Waters of the US is that almost all water stakeholders have a stake in this definition. If we don’t think about this and really understand the implementation challenges on the ground, I don’t think we can come up with a lasting definition.
Q: Who does the administration talk to before making rule changes?
A: We are going to have public meetings later this summer where any interested stakeholder can share their views. We will be holding regional roundtables in different parts of the country in order to understand regional variations. When we do, we will try to bring all the parties together in one discussion.
Q: How do you see the dual challenge of promoting growth in arid areas as the conditions of drought and water scarcity worsen?
A: It uses all the tools in our toolkit to meet the water needs of all communities, especially in the West. There has been an incredible innovation that has taken place around the diversification of local water supplies and its reuse. We really need to double down on a lot of these types of projects.
Q: Is it wise to encourage millions of people to live in places facing aridification and annual forest fires?
A: The reality is that millions of people live in the West. It is an essential economic center for America. So we really need to invest in those things that will promote the diversification of water supplies. When I worked at the San Francisco Utilities Board, we were in a drought. Much of the success we have had is that, as a local water utility, we have tried to manage every drop as carefully as possible.
Q: Who is not currently served by drinking water in the United States?
A: If you look at the water access gap in this country, it impacts both urban and rural America. In rural communities, we have places like McDowell County, West Virginia, where communities have never had a centralized infrastructure for drinking water and wastewater. In many urban communities, it is low-income people and communities of color, particularly African Americans and Latin American communities, who face many problems with contamination and aging water infrastructure. There are millions of people who do not have access to clean, safe, reliable and increasingly affordable water service.
Q: How does the infrastructure plan plan to map the location of lead pipes and service pipes?
A: There is real inequality across the country as to where these main service lines are. There are also a lot of new technologies emerging that can help the water utility map these things faster and more efficiently. In places that have this, they could go ahead with these removal projects. For those communities that don’t, we would really like some of the resources to go into this inventory. We are also developing advice and technical assistance to help states and localities on this inventory. There are a number of water associations that also work with their member utilities.
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