Baltimore's Experience May Yield Lessons for Senate as It Debates Integrated Planning Bill

Evan Isaacson

April 13, 2017

The City of Baltimore is wrapping up an $800 million upgrade of its largest sewage treatment plant. At the same time, the city is starting a $160 million project to retrofit a drinking water reservoir; is in the midst of a $400 million project to realign a major section of its sewer system; and is spending several million on projects throughout the city to manage polluted runoff from its streets and other paved surfaces.

And these are just a few of the city's many infrastructure projects to upgrade drinking water and wastewater facilities, improve the systems of pipes that deliver clean water to homes and, separately, sewage to their treatment plants, and begin to deal with the thousands of acres of pavement that channel filthy water into the city's harbor.

Managing our need for water is both expensive and complicated. If you consider the challenge involved in planning and prioritizing these multi-billion dollar projects, you begin to understand why something with a name as dull as the "integrated municipal planning framework" is becoming something of a hot topic in some circles. The challenges of worsening drought and flooding that climate change is forecasted to create for American cities in coming decades have also propelled the emergence of a related, but broader topic of growing importance called "integrated water management" – the coordinated management of societal water needs in an equitable and sustainable way.

These emerging issues are the focus of a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last month that would directly address some of the challenges faced by cities like Baltimore. The "Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act" essentially does three things: (1) It gives EPA (and state permit writers) clear statutory authority to engage with municipalities in the development of integrated municipal plans, which previously happened mostly in settlement discussions; (2) It changes the way that EPA would consider household affordability and community financial capacity in crafting water quality and drinking water plans for municipalities; and (3) It promotes "green infrastructure" in EPA policies, regulatory development, and enforcement settlements.

In short, the bill gives a thumbs-up to EPA to continue pushing these integrated and holistic approaches to water management that evolved significantly throughout the Obama years. These policies are rather uncontroversial on their face, as would be expected given that their purpose is merely to assist local governments in making the most effective and efficient use of their investments in clean and safe water. As always, however, the devil is in the details, and some of those details, including revising affordability guidelines, will fall to an EPA controlled by anti-regulatory Trump appointees.

Here are a few things to look for when reading the bill or trying to understand other proposals or policy developments regarding integrated planning.

Rust Belt Reality. Many of the cities with the greatest need for investment in water infrastructure are also some of the nation's poorest and face a declining population and tax base. Integrated planning was born of such circumstances, particularly in dozens of Rust Belt communities spanning from the Upper Midwest through the Northeast. These cities commonly have failing sewer systems of an antiquated design that spill sewage into waterways after significant (or sometimes insignificant) rainfall. Such spills are illegal under the Clean Water Act, which is how EPA became involved in this policy. Of course, the reason some of these communities had not already put a stop to the sewage releases on their own is because they face serious fiscal constraints. First introduced into EPA enforcement settlements and long-term pollution control plans, integrated planning under the bill would become a ubiquitous EPA tool for its efforts to find environmental solutions that work with communities' unique needs and fiscal constraints.

How Integrated Is Too Integrated? As noted, it's important to distinguish between the integrated municipal planning framework policy that EPA has developed and the broader philosophy or movement among water advocates known as integrated water management. The broader concept is designed to educate the public and policymakers about the need to view and manage water quality and quantity holistically, breaking down the regulatory and programmatic silos between drinking water and water quality. Some stakeholders, including Baltimore City, would like to see an even greater level of integration in EPA's planning framework by folding together not just the needs of sewage treatment plants, leaky sewer systems, and stormwater utilities, but also drinking water and water supply needs. Of course, while considering the full range of a community's water needs is valuable, some danger may lurk in trying to force so many water-related municipal needs to compete with each other for funding.

Integration Means Prioritization, Not Elimination. Integrated planning should never be used by a jurisdiction as an excuse to shirk responsibility. When Baltimore became one of the first cities in the nation to use the integrated planning framework to consider which water infrastructure projects to prioritize, it spent many months evaluating the benefits of each of the dozens of wastewater, surface water, and drinking water projects it had in the planning queue and then developed multiple scenarios to determine which one maximized community benefits the soonest. Some projects were accelerated, some were deferred, yet, significantly, the exercise was not about what work to do, but rather when to do it. In the years since that effort was completed, the city has also undertaken a proposed modification of a 2002 legal settlement with EPA and the state of Maryland to extend the deadline for completing projects to fix its leaky sewer system after it missed the original date. It is not clear exactly what role integrated planning will play in negotiations over the settlement modification or what options Baltimore had to get the work done sooner, but the planning framework has at least been helpful in educating municipal officials, regulators, policymakers, and the public about the many overlapping infrastructure projects it is currently juggling.

"Who" Is Even More Important than "When." It is important to reiterate that integrated planning should never be about cutting funding, excusing municipal responsibilities, or investing less in critical infrastructure. And just as municipalities should never have to choose between different types of critical water infrastructure needs, poor households should not have to shoulder an ever greater portion of the funding for water infrastructure. The whole reason that EPA devised the integrated planning framework is that so many communities were struggling to figure out how to pay for the essential infrastructure repairs needed to protect water quality under the Clean Water Act.

Few, if any, mayors or municipal officials would argue with the assertion that water infrastructure is among the most important, basic, and core needs of their communities. So why should water infrastructure financing be treated differently than financing for other municipal functions? Like any other essential public service, the funding sources for water quality and drinking water projects should be diverse: from local, state, and federal governments and from a variety of funds like general funds and general obligation bonds.

Just because infrastructure is supported by ratepayers does not mean they should be stuck with the entire burden of this massive and crucial job. Integrated planning must be used as a way to help reduce the burden on lower-income communities and never as a way to reduce investment in clean and safe water for these communities.

Integrated Planning Needs Green Infrastructure. The recent Senate bill's provisions promoting green infrastructure may seem a little out of place in legislation that is otherwise focused only on the integrated planning framework and household affordability of sewer system upgrades. However, green infrastructure really is the environmental solution of choice for integrated water management advocates, as demonstrated by the District of Columbia, Cincinnati, and other cities that have swapped gray for green infrastructure.

What makes green infrastructure, a term used to describe a whole category of technologies and practices, exciting is that it has so many benefits, providing solutions to many different problems. For example, a bioretention cell installed on a city block soaks up a lot of polluted runoff and prevents it from reaching both the nearest streams and the nearest overwhelmed sewer drains; one practice meets two different regulatory requirements and solves two different problems. These projects also reduce pathogens and toxic and carcinogenic pollutants and provide more urban green spaces that improve property values, reduce urban heat, reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, create local jobs, and have a wide range of other benefits.

Still, Most Infrastructure Will Not Be Green. Not only has Baltimore been a poster child for the fiscal and economic problems that gave rise to the need for integrated planning, it is also located along the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay. As such, it is a part of the most advanced and comprehensive watershed restoration efforts in American history. Green infrastructure will surely become a big part of the future of the Bay's restoration, particularly in urban communities, but only as the current generation of pollution control technologies run their course.

Much of the focus on water infrastructure upgrades over the last decade has involved modernizing the fleet of sewage treatment plants with the best available technology, which has been the primary source of progress in restoring the Chesapeake (and could do the same for other nutrient-choked and algae-infested waters around the nation). Like green infrastructure, these cutting edge projects are expensive (two of the largest are in Baltimore), and their adoption may be delayed or avoided if integrated municipal planning or other policies are used in a way that tilts the balance toward short-term fiscal constraint and not maximizing long-term social, environmental, and fiscal benefits. This is why the primary focus of municipal officials, planners, and regulators needs to be on the use of integrated planning to figure out how much money is needed to support all necessary infrastructure projects and where the money should come from.

Tread Carefully When Amending the Clean Water Act.  Carefully considering the impact of an integrated planning effort is always important, but particularly when that effort takes the form of legislation that would amend the Clean Water Act. After all, an integrated plan becomes the opposite of "integrated" if it is used to disintegrate existing public safeguards under the Clean Water Act or other federal or state water quality, drinking water, or water supply laws.

Household affordability guidelines should not be used to cap municipal spending or indefinitely delay or avoid important public health projects. Municipal planning efforts should not be used to gather up all water infrastructure projects in the planning process, only to toss half of them out. Integrated planning means properly accounting for all factors, maximizing efficiencies, and increasing funding diversity; it does not mean placing regulatory safeguards or environmental and public health projects in a zero-sum contest and picking winners or losers. It is notable that many integrated planning proponents would like these plans to be effectuated through permits rather than consent decrees and enforcement actions. This is just another of several potential problems that an ill-conceived integrated planning proposal could pose to progress under the Clean Water Act if we do not carefully consider each proposal.

Policymakers in municipalities like Baltimore and clean water advocates have come to understand that neither municipal finances nor clean water goals are well-served by laws, policies, or agencies that are stuck in siloes. We cannot afford to treat drinking water, municipal water infrastructure, industrial pollution, polluted urban runoff, source water protection, water supply, and many other water issues as completely different regulatory frameworks and programs. Water is water, wherever it flows or falls. A more holistic and integrated approach must be taken to ensure we protect the quantity and quality of water for the sake of the people who drink or use it and for the fish, wildlife, and ecosystems that depend on it. This approach deserves greater attention for the benefits it can provide to struggling communities, but also for the unintended consequences it could create if not undertaken carefully.

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