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Clean Water Costs

Posted 6/17/2009 -- The Baltimore City Paper

Baltimore, like many U.S. cities, faces the daunting challenge of maintaining a sewer system that is more than 100 years old in some parts of town ("The Reek Goes On," Mobtown Beat, June 10). No one likes the sight and smell of polluted water, and cleaning up our precious waterways is not just about public health and the environment, but about economic prosperity. The problem of aging infrastructure in our cities is compounded by a growing population, a decline in federal funding to help pay for infrastructure improvements, new regulatory requirements, and the threat of climate change, which could mean more storms and more water in an already overburdened system. Ratepayers in Baltimore, as in most U.S. cities, will foot most of the bill to upgrade its vast network of pipes and other infrastructure to prepare for these challenges. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) views the $4 billion in federal stimulus funding for clean water, of which Maryland received its $122 million share, as an important first step. While this amount helps, it simply is not enough.

Right now, the United States faces a water and wastewater infrastructure-funding CRISIS. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Government Accountability Office, the Water Infrastructure Network, and others estimate a wastewater funding gap of $350 billion to $500 billion over the next 20 years. Consider this: The federal government covered 78 percent of the cost to finance wastewater infrastructure in the 1970s; and now, less than 5 percent--a drop in the storm drain, as it were. The amount cities pay--about $70 billion annually--for their water and wastewater needs is second only to their education costs, according to the U.S. Census.

To help address the funding problem, NACWA and others support a clean water trust fund, financed broadly by fees potentially on such things as bottled beverages, flushable products, pesticides and agricultural chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, providing about $10 billion annually to help cities cover the staggering cost of meeting their water quality objectives. Even with this additional funding, ratepayers will still cover the lion's share of clean water costs. We hope to see a bill introduced soon in Congress that would create such a trust fund. We have trust funds for airports and highways. Why not create one to ensure we have clean water? Without significant federal assistance, the reek will go on.

Ken Kirk
Executive director, National Association of Clean Water Agencies
Washington, D.C.

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