National Association of Clean Water Agencies Director, Regulatory Affairs Emily Remmel speaks on COVID-19's impact on the storm water industry.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns spoke with various industry association leaders about how those associations were responding to COVID-19 and how the industry was being impacted. For more Q&As and to see the results of the SWS Market Impact Survey, check out this digital-exclusive report.
Katie Johns: How has COVID-19 impacted NACWA? Are you guys working from home?
Emily Remmel: We've been home for quite a while. We have a staff of around 25 to 30 people now, and I think this is week eight. I believe we went home March 13, which was a Friday, and we've been working from home ever since then. It was kind of nice at least for us. We moved locations last year, so we worked from home for a month in that transition, so we were ready. We had all the technology put in place then for our move, so we were kind of set up. At least we weren't out of the gates rushing to try and install some of this tech equipment, so it's been kind of convenient to have all of that set up already. We're here in D.C., so it seems like there are more and more cases coming out of Maryland and Virginia and so it's unclear when we're going to be going back.
Johns: Have there been any other impacts? Have you guys had to cancel any events?
Remmel: Yeah, good question. The spring is pretty much our heavy travel month for staff, so all of our staff travel was canceled. We have Water Week, which we just wrapped up last week, which was when we have all of our members fly into D.C. and do some advocacy and outreach with their congressional members. We had to do it completely virtual, which was very different but also really exciting because we saw more engagement virtually than we usually get in person. So, we had a couple webinars last week that had 1,700 registrants, and it was kind of wild. It's been kind of nice to see some additional engagement from folks that we don't usually hear from. Then what's unfortunate is this is our 50th anniversary. Our association started in Seattle, and we were planning on going back this summer. We have our big annual conference in July, and we had to cancel that and postpone it to next year. We were really looking forward to the 50th anniversary and getting together with our members and celebrating all the achievements of clean water over the last half century, so we'll have to wait until 2021 for that.
Katie Johns: What primary concern does NACWA have about this pandemic whether it's not being able to host in person events or economic impacts on the industry?
Remmel: I would definitely advocate for the fact that we are just completely supportive of our members who are on the frontlines of dealing with this pandemic, right, so they are essential. It's critical infrastructure. If they don't go to work because they are sick or somebody is infected or asymptomatic it impacts everything at the wastewater treatment plant, so their safety is our biggest concern and making sure that Congress and EPA know that in order to provide revenue, and makeup for revenue losses and the like, but really, it's just the critical and essential nature of the work that they do every single day and make sure that that that continues. So just having the support from Congress from the White House, from the EPA acknowledging that they are essential workers and and supporting the ongoing nature of maintaining public health and environmental health as well. So, I would say that would be my message. I don't know if that's necessarily in line with our CEO, Adam, but I'm sure it's pretty close.
Johns: That was another thing I was going to touch on briefly with you, as I know that in the, you know, the first round of stimulus packaging water infrastructure wasn't outright specified in that, but how can funding like that helps the industry?
Remmel: Yeah, so the CARES Act, I think that was the first stimulus package where wastewater or the water sector wasn't really represented in that first stimulus package, but right around that time, when the first deal was being negotiated, there was a strong push for funding to the water sector. We came up with an estimate of $12.5 billion loss and revenue, and so that's kind of the number that we've been pushing. I think that's solely on the wastewater side of things, which includes some storm water, and so that is the big push. Right after the stimulus package, the CARES Act passed, there was a huge concern or thought that the next stimulus package would be an infrastructure push, and that's kind of stalled. Our legislative team has been working tirelessly, talking with congress every day since then, trying to elevate the need for funding, more capital. This would help investment for shovel-ready projects and infrastructure projects that were planned. Those are our big ticket items that could put people back to work, so that those are some of our immediate asks.
Johns: Looking at the bigger picture, what kind of impact are you seeing on the stormwater industry so far?
Remmel: I would definitely say it's going to be project delays if there's the revenue shortfalls that are predicted, people can't pay for their utilities. You're going to see that big drop in Revenue which is going to delay construction projects and capital investments. So that is the biggest, most immediate impact that we foresee.
Johns: And you have seen that happening?
Remmel: We have seen it definitely on the wastewater side, which some of our members do both wastewater and storm water and they are predicting how much revenue they're going to lose this fiscal year. We've had a couple board meetings and calls with our board, and they've all voiced concerns about how much revenue they've already seen. Folks are not using as much water. They’re at home, obviously on the business side of things, no one eats out at restaurants and the like, so there's a drop in and how much water is being used.
Johns: It's springtime now, so for a lot of that country means flooding season and then pretty soon the coasts are going to have hurricane season on top of still trying to battle COVID-19, so first of all, how can municipalities balance their preparedness in that way? And secondly, do you think that because of COVID-19 we're going to see people having more preparedness plans in place for situations like this?
Remmel: Yeah, I mean, you're absolutely right. We’re bracing for tornado season in the Midwest, heavier storm seasons, hurricane season. We're asking our members to continually call and connect with their congressional members to advocate for more funding related to COVID-19 stimulus packages, but one thing that we do see is an every other year funding opportunity under the Water Resources Development Act. There are a couple of promising storm water-related funding opportunities in that draft. The senate just came out with a draft, and a bunch of the associations and organizations signed on to kind of an advocacy letter dealing with green infrastructure and some of the more specific kind of storm water related needs. There's a couple of provisions that the senate has right now including the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which is currently authorized at $1.6 billion. Over the next three years, the senate is trying to increase these, so 2021 is $2 billion, 2022 is $2.5 billion, and 2023 would be $3 billion. So all that said, that's the largest increase that we've seen in Clean Water State Revolving funds since it was created, so that would be an avenue for funding to close the gap for some of these projects that are ready and waiting. Then there's also some grant money available specifically for sewer overflows or storm water needs, so I would say those are really good opportunities to engage throughout the fall and get more funding for stormwater.
Johns: What are some best practices regarding outreach to the public or for municipalities to use in communicating with? And has NACWA implemented any new outreach practices?
Remmel: We're just really trying to continue our engagement with our members. Obviously, there's a lot of webinars happening that are, for the most part, free now that everyone's moving kind of digitally. But (NACWA is) just continuing engagement with our members to their ratepayers on whatever measures they're taking with respect to COVID-19. We've just been communicating a great deal with our members through advocacy alerts and engagement for them to get in touch with their congressional representatives.
Johns: We've also seen a lot of events being postponed or canceled, like you were talking about. How can people continue to network and make connections, despite not being able to go to live events that give them face to face interactions?
Remmel: I mean, who knew Zoom was going take off like the way it has? I feel like I'm on Zoom calls all day long. I think there's really great networking opportunities even through some of these virtual platforms, even though you can't shake hands and be in person and exchange business cards. I think there's a great deal of technology out there that helps people interact and communicate effectively. It's different. It takes a lot more focus. Some of our staff has participated in virtual conferences where they've literally moved an entire conference to a virtual event, and there's options to network and engage in virtual rooms with people of similar interests or questions or the like. So I think there's that avenue, but I think with Zoom and some of the other GoToMeeting type things, you can still get that face-to-face interaction, kind of virtual feeling of interacting with people.