Monday, January 09, 2006

The Soundkeeper Thinks Connecticut's Clean Water Fund Crisis Might Have Woken Up Some Legislators to the Sound's Importance

In the old days – the mid and late 1980s – people used to say that water quality in Long Island Sound had gotten so bad because it was easy to ignore antiquated sewage treatment systems and decaying sewage pipes. They were hidden in parts of town where few people lived (few people of real influence, that is) or, in the case of sewer pipes, were literally hidden underground. And when it came to one of the chief problems the old sewer systems caused – hypoxia, or the severe drop in dissolved oxygen in the Sound in summer – you couldn’t even see the symptoms unless you happened to be a particularly perceptive fisherman or there was a visible fish die-off.

In other words, out of sight, out of mind. That all changed of course in the 1990s, when EPA and the states and the legions of Long Island Sound advocates worked together to come up with a plan for easing the hypoxia crisis that was feasible from an engineering perspective, credible from a scientific perspective, and acceptable from a political perspective. We had a plan, we were confident it would work, and we had the money.

Except that now, 20 years after the out-of-sight, out-of-mind days, we’re back to out of sight, out of mind again.

But if we’re lucky, and if Connecticut’s legislators show some integrity, the problems brought on by this current out-of-sight, out-of-mind period will be enough to persuade the state to put up more money for water quality projects.

That’s the conclusion I came to after talking to Terry Backer the other day about the Connecticut General Assembly’s decision to pull money out of the Clean Water Fund, thereby jeopardizing the Long Island Sound cleanup and other water quality programs.

Terry has been the Soundkeeper since those mid-1980s days, and he’s also a member of the Connecticut General Assembly, representing Stratford.

What has happened, Terry said, is that the Connecticut legislators, particularly the leadership, decided to use the Clean Water Fund money to pay for other, more visible projects. Remember a month or so when House Speaker James A. Amann of Milford brushed off the funding issue by telling the Connecticut Post, “A sewage treatment plant, it’s not a sexy issue, right?”

Unfortunately for Amann, the funding cuts meant that the Connecticut DEP had to make a decision about which sewage improvement projects were sexy enough to qualify for the limited amount of money available and which ones weren’t. As the Connecticut Post reported the other day, one of those that wasn’t was the long-planned upgrade of the treatment plant in Milford.

Coincidence or not, it was strategically brilliant. It forced the Speaker to explain to his own constituents why the sewage project they’d been working so hard on now had to wait. Terry Backer thinks it might result in more money being put into the fund next month.

“What happened in our favor is that the leadership got a sense of what happens when you do this,” Terry told me.

The leadership now knows that if there’s not enough money, the pain isn’t spread out across the state. It’s localized in particular communities – in this case the town the particular leader represents.

When funding cuts force projects to be delayed a year or two or three, it means costs rise because of inflation. And even if inflation is relatively low, the costs of sewage plant upgrades are so high that an increase of just a small percentage means the towns have to pay a lot more money to complete the project.

Which raises the issue of basic fairness. For years Connecticut’s towns have prepared to the sewage plant upgrades by spending millions of dollars on planning and engineering. And they did it with the specific encouragement of the state, which told them that they’d get grants and low-interest loans to complete the work. Except that now, they’d being told there’s not enough money to go around.

Terry said his opinion is that the state needs $100 million a year for water quality projects, although it could probably succeed with half that.

The future will become clearer when the Assembly reconvenes, he said. Legislators might decide that Long Island Sound and water quality in general is a priority and a state responsibility. Or they might do what the federal government did under President Reagan in the out-of-sight, out-of-mind era.

“In the 80s, under Reagan, the feds backed out of funding for sewage plant improvements,” Terry said. “It may be that Connecticut is backing out of the sewage treatment plant business the way the feds did.”


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