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NY Times

April 10, 2002

Federal Study Calls Spending on Water Systems Perilously Inadequate


Annual spending to maintain and expand water and sewage systems is lagging tens of billions of dollars behind what is needed to keep up with population growth and tightening health and pollution standards, federal environmental officials have found.

A draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency says that by 2019, the accumulated gap between actual and necessary investments in these vital, but largely invisible, underpinnings of urbanized America is likely to exceed $650 billion.

The trend threatens to hinder urban economies as long-deferred costs for cleaning up water come due, and to harm coastal waters and public health as water and sewage treatment capacity falls short, according to the analysis, which confirms studies by private groups.

The problem remains hidden from view, partly because it is generally manifested as thousands of discrete local mini-disasters - boil-water alerts, beach closings and the like.

The agency predicts more frequent water and sewage pipeline leaks and breaks, higher maintenance costs, and a rise in coastal sewage pollution to levels not seen since the early 1970's.

"The gap is at staggering levels," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, the deputy assistant administrator in the agency's office of water. "The real question is not what is the specific number, but focusing on what new approaches can be put together to move forward."

Because of leaks, water shortages during droughts like the one that has settled in along the East Coast will only get worse, other experts say. Chronic leaks in pipes already consume 20 percent of the water carried by many aging city supply systems, and every year more water mains crack or fail.

A copy of the draft was provided to The New York Times by a private group eager to point out that the Bush administration's proposed spending to help communities meet pollution limits does not come close to matching its own estimate of the costs of such improvements.

What is normally a stealth issue has surfaced now because Congress is finishing work this week on bills that would significantly increase federal money for water projects for the first time in many years.

Private environmental groups and engineering trade groups have been pointing to the spending gap for several years.

"With the exception of the interstate highway system, this is the largest public works infrastructure in this country, the biggest investment we've made in the 20th century," said Michael Charles, a lobbyist for the American Society of Civil Engineers, a private group representing 125,000 engineers. "And it's in real trouble. A lot of these aging facilities have outlived their design life and have to be replaced."

About 85 percent of spending on what amounts to society's circulatory system comes from local fees, the rest from federal loans and grants. But federal aid has been flat for years, pushing up local water and sewer rates and raising borrowing costs as local water utilities and municipalities try, and fail, to keep up.

The problem, many experts say, cannot be solved only with added local user fees, because sharp increases would push rates so high that no one could pay them and urban economies would stall.

The Environmental Protection Agency report, which is being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, comes as Congress considers increasing the federal money provided to state loan pools for water and sewer projects.

The House subcommittee on environment and hazardous materials is holding a hearing on Thursday to examine problems with the nation's drinking-water supplies.

A bill being marked up this week by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee would, over five years, put $20 billion into state loan pools for sewer improvements and $15 billion for drinking water projects. In recent years, a total of about $2 billion annually has gone into the combined funds.

A House bill, focused on the sewage treatment problem, would provide $20 billion over five years.

But spending at these levels would still only nibble at the problem outlined by the E.P.A. and others. Private engineering and water quality groups have conducted independent analyses showing greater gaps. The Water Infrastructure Network, a coalition of local water and sewer officials and environmental groups, recently estimated the accumulated needs by 2020 at $1 trillion.

Not everyone agrees that the gap is insurmountable and will inevitably lead to trouble. Last year, Perry Beider, an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, testified at a Congressional hearing that it was hard to predict long-term needs for wastewater and water systems because there was little hard data, particularly on the condition of underground pipelines. The lifetime of identical sections of iron pipe can be 20 years or 100 years, depending on conditions in the soil.

Moreover, Mr. Beider said, expanded federal aid can backfire.

"A broad increase in federal funding aimed at keeping water and sewer rates affordable," he said, "could reduce the pressure on systems to operate more efficiently and on customers to economize on their use of water services."

He noted that the cost per gallon of operating and maintaining sewage plants had declined slightly through better management. Over all, though, he agreed with industry experts that "drinking water and wastewater systems will require large investments over the next few decades."

The question of where the money will come from remains. Some people have suggested establishing a federal trust fund similar to the one that supports highway maintenance and construction. But the highway fund is replenished by gasoline taxes and other user fees.

"There's no federal tax associated with toilets and faucets," Mr. Grumbles of the E.P.A. said.

Most federal spending on sewage treatment systems occurred in a burst after the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. Since then, the federal government has issued more than $77 billion in grants and loans that cities have used to upgrade plants to capture more pollution, bacteria and other threats. Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act in the mid-1990's led to similar loan pools for fixing water systems.

But little federal money has flowed to help maintain those plants or build more, the E.P.A. report says, even as the country's population has grown sharply and become more urbanized.

"People have an idea of the cost and needs of highways, subways, schools, but sewage treatment, water - these things are invisible," said James T. B. Tripp, a lawyer for Environmental Defense, a private conservation group, and a member of the New York City Water Board, which sets water and sewer rates.

They are invisible, at least, until they fail. Examples abound: a 1998 water main break floods collections in the basement of the Boston Public Library; sewage spills in New Orleans close lake beaches and foul the Mississippi River and, after a settlement with the federal government, are costing the city $200 million to fix. In Los Angeles, according to a separate E.P.A. report, the health of swimmers is largely a function of the distance they keep from storm sewer outflows.

Even with spending trailing needs, old and fast-growing cities are already seeing a rapid rise in water and sewer charges. Without more federal money, experts say, those charges will rise even more quickly.

New York City, for example, which for years had water and sewer charges that rose at most 1 percent or 2 percent annually, will have a 6.5 percent increase this year, Mr. Tripp said.

Nationwide, the vast maze of buried water and waste pipelines is one of the biggest sources of trouble.

By 2016, the E.P.A. report projects, more than half of the country's sewer pipes will be in poor or very poor condition or broken. This would constitute an enormous rise from 2000, when only 8 percent of the estimated 600,000 miles of sewer lines were in poor shape or worse.

Adding to costs is the need to address newly appreciated health and pollution problems, Mr. Tripp said. These include hazards in drinking water, like arsenic and the intestinal parasite cryptosporidium, and substances that choke waterways, like nitrogen, a nutrient in runoff that saps oxygen and sparks algae blooms.

New York City, under a recent settlement with federal and state environmental agencies, has committed to spending up to $1.4 billion just to cut nitrogen releases from five sewage plants to improve conditions in Long Island Sound.

City environmental officials say 70 percent of the $7.5 billion in improvements planned for sewage plants and other water quality equipment over the next five years results from tightened federal rules - but hardly any federal money is involved.

One way to reduce the gap would be to develop more efficient ways of improving treatment of waste and drinking water. Some techniques show promise, the E.P.A.'s Mr. Grumbles said, including harnessing more kinds of bacteria and plants to help capture contaminants.

But the new report notes that public and private research and development for water purification technologies are about half what they were in the boom years of the 1970's.

Meanwhile, water problems are forcing change on communities where growth has outpaced planning. In Georgia, longstanding pollution from storm runoff and sewage lines led to an order from a federal judge that could, if certain deadlines are not met, halt the writing of new discharge permits for wastewater - in essence halting growth.

Joel H. Cowan, the developer of the Atlanta area's giant Peachtree City community, was appointed by the governor last year to lead a new water planning commission for the region that is trying to figure out how to fix what he calls "sins past."

"We never thought we had a geographic limit or a resource limit for growth," Mr. Cowan said. "Now we don't have a choice."

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