Monday, March 26, 2007

The Argument for Doubling the Clean Water Fund

I wrote in my book that 18 million gallons of raw sewage flows into Long Island Sound and its tributaries each day. That’s 6.5 billion gallons a year. In yesterday’s Courant, Curt Johnson, senior attorney and program director with Connecticut Fund for the Environment, and Faith Gavin Kuhn, director of public information for the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, wrote that Connecticut alone accounts for two billion gallons of raw sewage a year.

How close are those numbers are to reality? Who knows. Because most of the raw sewage is carried into waterways by rainwater, the total depends on the amount of rain. And sewer systems are continually being upgraded (and presumably old systems are continuing to fail).

But no one disputes that the raw sewage total is high and unacceptable, and Johnson and Kuhn use the figure to make the case for doubling Governor Rell’s proposal to put $70 million in the Connecticut Clean Water Fund.

Getting back to basics and meeting our clean water goals will require an investment of about $150 million in general obligation bonds during the next fiscal year. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, the present level of funding will allow only one in seven projects that are ready to go this year to be funded. This will continue unless adequate funds are provided for the priority wastewater treatment projects in 73 municipalities.

Easing hypoxia in Long Island Sound is one reason to double the proposal. Stopping the flow of raw sewage that reaches the Sound and Connecticut’s rivers is another:

This year, sewage system operators expect a total of nearly 2 billion gallons of raw sewage to overflow into the Connecticut River and coastal harbors over about 50 rainy days.


Anonymous Robert Funicello said...

NOT ONLY Connecticut needs water treatment investment:

America Needs a Water Treatment Infrastructure Trust Fund 3/24/2007
By Ken Kirk and Wenonah Hauter

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosted a conference March 21-23 in downtown Atlanta on so-called innovative and sustainable strategies to help close a major clean water infrastructure funding gap. EPA estimates this gap at $300 billion - $500 billion over the next 20 years. Ironically, the EPA conference coincides with the Bush administration's plan to once again slash the very funding cities, such as Atlanta, rely on to build and operate their clean water infrastructure. Essentially, the federal government is washing its hands of the commitment it made 35 years ago with the passage of the Clean Water Act to help states and municipalities provide safe, affordable water for all Americans.

Many U.S. cities operate drinking water and sewage systems designed and built before World War I. As these critical systems age, they deteriorate causing sewage to spill into streams, rivers, lakes, and ocean, raising serious public health concerns. EPA's most recent assessment shows that 58% of Georgia's rivers and 25% of her lakes are "impaired" — unsafe for fishing, swimming, or drinking. Comparable levels of impairment exist nationwide.

In passing the 1972 Clean Water Act, Congress declared it "the national policy that Federal financial assistance be provided to construct publicly owned waste treatment works." Congress put those words to action with more than $61 billion in grants to ensure clean and safe water. In 1987, Congress switched from grants to a low interest loan program called the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) to pay for these improvements. This fund has seen repeated cuts since fiscal year 2004 when Congress provided $1.35 billion. The request for the current fiscal year is nearly half that amount at $688 million. What's worse, the Bush administration has threatened to veto recent legislation overwhelmingly approved by the U.S. House of Representatives that would provide $14 billion for needed infrastructure improvements (H.R. 720).

So how does the administration propose to fix this ever-widening funding gap? One prong of its shortsighted approach is for cities to simply raise their water and sewer rates, a tactic that ignores several crucial facts. First, for many cities, doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling sewer fees would not be enough to meet replacement needs. Second, for the past five years, utilities have raised their rates at double the rate of inflation. Moreover, raising rates is just not an option in some economically distressed communities.

The Bush administration is also encouraging the privatization of public utilities by proposing to raise state caps on private activity bonds. While cities support having a variety of tools at their disposal to address infrastructure needs, there is little, if any evidence, to suggest that these tax-exempt bonds, designed to encourage private investment in public projects, will spur infrastructure investment in any meaningful way. Furthermore, the private bond caps in 49 of 50 states are not even met today. Communities have already experimented with privatization and learned that the private sector cannot solve their infrastructure needs.

The innovative approaches EPA recommends are good ideas that most publicly owned treatment plants are already employing; but what is needed to close the gap, are real federal dollars. Rather than engaging in a politically charged debate every year about more money for pipes and treatment plants or about outdated and discarded fixes such as privatization, Congress should protect America's water by establishing a trust fund to pay for infrastructure improvements.

National priorities that transcend state and local boundaries should receive perpetual funding streams, immune from shifting political currents. Trust funds already pay for highways, airports and social security. Why not water?

Ken Kirk is executive director of the Washington, DC-based National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He can be reached at 202-833-4653 or Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch, Washington, DC. She can be reached at 202-797-6550.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

I'd be careful about posting copyrighted stuff but no matter. What is happening is that cities and smaller municipalities have to write larger checks to the EPA every year as the upsets get worse. A small upset, such as a backed-up sewer flowing into a waterway with 50,000 gallons might be a fine of $10,000, I am just guessing here. But it adds up. Austin, Texas has several hundred events like that in the last two years (a "clean city" mind you).

What it comes down to is there is no more EPA grant-matching funds and the locals can't pay for it all so paying a small fine is the only viable alternative.

Well that sucks, don't it?

6:09 PM  

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