Oct. 25, 2010

10 minutes with Ken Kirk

KEN KIRK is executive director of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He talks with the BC Water News team about the challenges and opportunities NACWA faces today, as well as how utilities can narrow the gap between tighter budgets and tightening regulations.

Name: Ken Kirk

Title: NACWA Executive Director

Background: Prior to joining NACWA, Ken worked with a Washington, D.C.-based private consulting firm, where he had responsibility for the management of several associations, including AMSA; worked in the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Legislation; and served as Public Affairs Manager at the Water Environment Federation.  He has degrees from New York University, the Georgetown University Law Center and the George Washington University Law Center, where his specialty was environmental law.  He also serves as chair of the Water Infrastructure Network, a broad-based coalition dedicated to preserving and protecting the health, environmental and economic gains that America's drinking water and wastewater infrastructure provide.  Most recently, he helped found and serves as president of the Clean Water America Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established to explore the complex issue of water sustainability and plan for the future by improving public awareness that advances holistic, watershed-based approaches to water quality and quantity challenges.

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What are the most critical issues currently facing NACWA?
Ken Kirk: As an organization representing public wastewater treatment agencies, NACWA’s challenges reflect those of its municipal members. The economic downturn has impacted municipalities profoundly and NACWA has tried to ensure that its agenda and approaches reflect this altered financial reality. Despite the difficult economic times, however, the Obama administration and Congress have only ramped up their regulatory, legislative and enforcement activity and, as such, NACWA has continued to expand its advocacy agenda to meet these challenges. It has done so by targeting its resources to those issues that would have the broadest impact on the nation’s public clean water agencies.

NACWA has sought to ensure that regulations are both consistent and scientifically and economically sound and viable. It has been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency closely in the development of meaningful sanitary sewer overflow, sewage sludge incineration, nutrient control, stormwater management, climate change, and water quality standard policies. While all of these issues are being looked at individually by the agency, NACWA is urging the agency and Congress to look at them holistically, in terms of both cost and water quality benefit. In line with this, NACWA has started a campaign called Money Matters with the motto: “Smarter Investment to Advance Clean Water."

NACWA believes the time is now to take a look at the programs — both existing and emerging — under the Clean Water Act and to take a much-needed, broad view at the regulatory landscape.  By doing this at all levels of government, ratepayer dollars can be maximized by determining viable, practical steps to incentivize innovation, embrace adaptive management, and maximize water quality benefit.

How has the economic environment impacted NACWA's work?
Ken: The economic downturn has, and will continue to demand, a new way of doing business. NACWA was successful in getting $4 billion for the clean water state revolving (CWSRF) in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA or stimulus package) and significantly increased levels of funds for the CWSRF through annual appropriations. NACWA was able to obtain these funds because of the work it and the work that the Water Infrastructure Network (WIN) did to underscore the massive water infrastructure needs, which are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The increased federal funding, however, while helpful, has proven to be largely a stop-gap measure to assist municipalities through the most difficult downturn since the Great Depression.

If anything, the ARRA effort underscored the need for a long-term federal commitment to clean water via a deficit-neutral, firewalled and equitable trust fund, but also demonstrated that municipalities will continue to be largely reliant on significant rate increases to put more money on the table for water quality improvements going forward. The economic downturn has, therefore, shed the light on the need to address clean water issues in a new way. To the extent there is any silver lining to be found in these difficult economic times, it is that the downturn has opened the door to a dialogue about a new approach to affordability-related issues, watershed approaches, and new techniques and technologies that can stretch each precious dollar as far as possible.

The economic downturn has also made it clear that despite massive municipal budget woes, federal regulation and enforcement will not ease up, making NACWA’s work to ensure sound economic and scientifically-based policies all the more critical.

How do you see the regulatory landscape affecting the water/wastewater industries?
Ken: As I mentioned before, there will only be more regulations at ever-greater cost to the communities that public agencies serve. From a broad view, water quantity and water quality issues are overlapping more and more, leading to a view that “water is water.” Ultimately, wastewater, drinking water and stormwater must be managed as one resource.

This regulatory impetus, in part, has made NACWA membership attractive to stormwater agencies and to critical advocacy in the stormwater arena. Over 30 percent of NACWA’s wastewater treatment agencies now have stormwater management responsibilities and this is only trending upward. More than 30 percent of NACWA’s members also have joint wastewater-drinking water management responsibilities.

To meet this new paradigm of “water is water” or “one water management,” NACWA created a new 501(c)(3) educational association called the Clean Water America Alliance, with the goal of bringing all the water sector voices together to work toward the goal of this new management vision.

What can utilities do to address the gap between funds and tightening regulations?
Ken: Utilities are at the forefront of innovative measures to address this gap. Utilities are employing green infrastructure techniques to meet ever-tightening wet weather/stormwater regulations. In fact, in many instances, the utilities are far more advanced than their state or federal counterparts are regarding these green infrastructure efforts. Failure to seize upon this new opportunity now can stifle innovation and creativity going forward — something utilities will not allow to happen.

Utilities are also raising rates dramatically to meet the regulatory requirements. NACWA’s 2009 Service Charge Index shows that rates in 2009 went up nearly 9 percent, despite inflation remaining flat. For nearly the past decade, utilities have been raising rates at double the rate of inflation. Municipalities are spending approximately $80 billion a year on clean and safe water — second only to education in municipal spending nationally.

Utilities must, given these trends, remain united in the call for dedicated, long-term federal funding of clean water. If clean water merits costly federal regulations then it also deserves equitable federal investment. Also, municipalities must remain united in the call for allowing utilities the flexibility to invest their communities’ money in a rational manner that will maximize water quality benefits within their watersheds.

Finally, utilities are becoming more business-minded in the sense that influent and effluent is being increasingly seen as a resource. Whether it is through the capture of energy through the treatment process, the ability to cull phosphorus from the waste stream, biosolids for land-application, the use of green infrastructure projects, and the reuse of the effluent itself, wastewater treatment plants are finding ways to develop new product lines and potential revenue streams as well.

What are the biggest challenges facing your organization?
Ken: As an organization primarily supported through municipal membership, the biggest challenge, as with all municipal-based organizations, is growing the membership. During the past two years, however, membership has been very stable and member involvement has grown dramatically thanks to a more activist administration on environmental issues. This demonstrates that NACWA is on the right track – a fact perhaps best exemplified by its 2009-10 Year in Review, highlighting this past year’s advocacy activity.

What are the biggest opportunities ahead?
Ken: I believe there is an unparalleled opportunity to work toward changing the water paradigm.  Advocacy organizations like NACWA are increasingly aware that the cumulative impact of 40 years under a specific statute (in this case the Clean Water Act) demands a serious review of the direction the industry is heading in. Organizations such as the Clean Water America Alliance are seeking to unite diverse interests and direct their energies, talents, and networks toward a common objective.

Also, the notion that wastewater is a resource constitutes a huge shift in our thinking over the past century. Initially, wastewater systems were developed to just move waste as quickly and cheaply as possible out of our urban centers. Now in a water-, phosphorus- and energy-starved world, we are looking to wastewater treatment as a resource, not just a service.

How did you get started in the environmental industry?
Ken: Growing up in New York City I had an interest in ensuring that urban areas could thrive and be sustainable with a high quality of life. The important work that municipalities do every day often goes unnoticed and is generally under-appreciated. I decided to work to change this misperception and help ensure that municipal workers would be seen as the true environmentalists. 

I also wanted to create lasting municipal-state-federal partnerships that could advance environmental protection based on sound policy. Although my environmental career started at the EPA, it quickly led to me positions advocating on behalf of the municipal perspective.

What do you love about what you do?
Ken: Waking up and knowing that I will be going to the office and working with an unparalleled staff on behalf of dedicated public servants who are working every day to improve people’s lives.

What's one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Ken: Most people do not know that I’m a lawyer with a degree in environmental law.

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