Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

By Rob Feinberg April 18, 2012

Stimulus money pays for water programs

In his presidential campaign, President Barack Obama made several promises to improve water quality and protect the nation"s lakes and other bodies of water from pollution.

Obama promised to:

  • "Reinvigorate the drinking water standards that have been weakened under the Bush administration and update them to address new threats."
  • "Help communities by restoring better federal financing for water and wastewater treatment infrastructure."
  • "Continue leadership in protecting national treasures like the Great Lakes from threats such as industrial pollution, water diversion, and invasive species."
  • "Establish policies to help high-growth regions with the challenges of managing their water supplies."

As we did in our last update, we"re addressing each piece of the promise.

Reinvigorate drinking water standards

To understand this part of the promise, we first need to take a look at the drinking water standards that were eased under the President George W. Bush. One of the most controversial rulings that the Bush administration made was one in 2008 to exempt perchlorate from federal regulation. Perchlorate is a chemical that "can disrupt the thyroid"s ability to produce hormones needed for normal growth and development," according to the EPA.

In February 2011, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced that her agency would begin the process to regulate perchlorate, a reversal from the Bush administration"s 2008 decision.

In addition, Jackson announced that the administration was also looking to establish a regulation covering 16 other toxic chemicals in water that could potentially cause cancer. Those regulations represent significant steps towards increasing drinking water standards.

Increase federal financing for water and wastewater treatment

The federal government primarily uses two programs to provide grants and loans for water and wastewater treatment infrastructure: the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

While funding for both programs has varied from year to year, the administration drastically increased funding for the programs as part of its 2009 stimulus bill. In the bill, the administration provided $4 billion for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and $2 billion for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

Those allocations represent over 200 percent of the funding that each program receives in a given year, so the stimulus funds certainly qualify as the "better federal financing" that Obama promised.

Protect "national treasures" like the Great Lakes

As we mentioned in our last update, the administration launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2010, a project which provided grants of $475 million in 2010 and $300 million in 2011 to local and federal agencies around the Great Lakes.

According to the EPA"s action plan on the initiative, the project is working to address problems in the Great Lakes through efforts like "pollution prevention and cleanup of the most polluted areas" and "efforts to institute a 'zero tolerance policy" toward new invasions, including the establishment of self-sustaining populations of invasive species, such as Asian Carp."

And according to a February 2012 report from the EPA, the initiative has already funded over 600 restoration projects, including 12 cleanups of nearby rivers and the creation of new barriers and technologies to help remove invasive species.

The administration hasn"t only looked at the Great Lakes, though. On May 12, 2009, President Obama issued an executive order instructing the EPA to work with other agencies and states to improve the quality of the Chesapeake Bay.

After a year-long study, the administration unleashed its strategy in May 2010 to improve the Chesapeake through conservation, new pollution regulation and oyster restoration with both short-term and long-term efforts that improve the bay by 2025.

A March 2012 progress report from the Federal Leadership Committee for the Chesapeake Bay shows that some progress has been made on that strategy, saying that the program had already reduced 11 percent of the sediment and 8 percent of the nitrogen in the bay.

Help high-growth regions manage water supplies

As we discussed in another promise, the 2009 stimulus bill allocated $134 million to water reclamation and reuse projects throughout the western United States. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the funds unite "local communities with the U.S. government to provide change, growth and a future for energy efficiency, clean water and environmental stewardship in a broad range of areas." Those goals fall in line with Obama"s promise.

Taking a look at the promise as a whole, the administration has created new regulations for toxic chemicals and increased funding for grants and loans for water infrastructure. The administration has also made the country"s "national treasures" a priority through its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the president"s Chesapeake Bay executive order, and it has put stimulus money towards water efficiency programs in the west.

Lynn Thorp, senior policy specialist for the environmental advocacy group Clean Water Action, said that those cumulative efforts have made a significant difference.

"Do we want to see more? Yes, of course," said Thorp. But overall, she said, the administration has been innovative and relatively effective in pushing its clean-water agenda.

We rate this a Promise Kept.

Our Sources

Interview with Lynn Thorp, senior policy specialist for Clean Water Action

EPA, "Perchlorate," Accessed April 9, 2012.

EPA, "EPA To Develope Regulation for Perchlorate and Toxic Chemicals in Drinking Water," Feb. 2, 2011.  

EPA, "SRF Allotments FY05 to FY11," Accessed April 9, 2012.

EPA, "Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds: ARRA Implementation," Accessed April 9, 2012.

EPA, "Real Restoration, Real Results," February 2012.

Washington Post, "EPA reverses Bush-era water safety standards, will regulate contaminants," Feb. 3, 2011.

Healing Our Water-Great Lakes Coalition, "Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to Receive almost $300 million in 2011 Budget Deal," April 13, 2011.

White House, "Executive Order: Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration," May 12, 2009.

Washington Post, "Obama Order EPA To Take The Lead in Chesapeake Cleanup Efforts," May 13, 2009.

Federal Leadership Committee For the Chesapeake Bay, "Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed," May 11, 2010.

Federal Leadership Committee For the Chesapeake Bay, "Progress Report: FY2011," March 5, 2012.

U.S. Department of the Interior, "Water Reclamation and Reuse Projects," July 2009.

By Catharine Richert September 30, 2009

Obama moves on promise to improve water quality

President Barack Obama made some substantial promises about water restoration during his campaign.
Specifically, he pledged to improve drinking water standards, pay for new infrastructure to carry water and for wastewater treatment, protect the Great Lakes, and help high-growth areas with managing water supplies.
Let's take each part of Obama's promise and see how he's doing.
Drinking Water Standards
On Aug. 5, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would be deciding whether children's health should be taken into account when regulating chemical perchlorate, a chemical used in the manufacture of fireworks, flares and solid rocket propellant.
The chemical is found in just over 4 percent of the nation's drinking water supplies, according to EPA, and scientific experts and consumer advocates have raised questions about its safety. The Bush administration EPA made a preliminary decision not to regulate perchlorate.
Financing Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure
The stimulus package passed earlier this year was full of money meant to update local water systems.
Here are two examples:
In July, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality was awarded $43 million to improve the state's wastewater system.
In the same month, about $34.5 million was given to New Mexico. About $15 million will be used for the state"s Clean Water State Revolving Fund program, and another $19.5 million will go to the New Mexico Finance Authority for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program, according to the White House. Both programs provide low-interest loans for water projects, such as wastewater treatment, nonpoint source pollution control, and watershed and estuary management. 
Protect the Great Lakes

Legislation to create the Great Lakes Collaboration, a coalition dedicated to coordinating efforts to clean up the lakes, has been introduced in both the House, where it's sponsored by Republican Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, and in the Senate, where it was introduced by Democrat Carl Levin, also from Michigan.
Neither bill has seen any action, though Obama has taken other steps to make the Great Lakes a priority.
In his fiscal 2010 budget, Obama included $475 million to create a new Great Lakes restoration initiative. And in June 2009, he appointed Cameron Davis, president of a Chicago environmentalist group, to oversee the administration"s initiative to clean up the Great Lakes.
Meanwhile, in an effort to reduce water pollution, the EPA is revising its standards for water discharges from coal-fired power plants.
"Wastewater discharged from coal ash ponds, air pollution control equipment, and other equipment at power plants can contaminate drinking water sources, cause fish and other wildlife to die and create other detrimental environmental effects," according to a Sept. 15 news release.
Current regulations were issued in 1982 and have not kept pace with changes in the electric power industry, the news release said.
All these efforts are a step toward improving water quality, but they're all works in progress; the Great Lakes legislation has not yet passed, and the perchlorate and coal-fired plant rules are in the initial stages of adoption. As a result, we rate this promise In the Works.

Our Sources

Latest Fact-checks