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Future Water Quality May Be Headed Back to the 1970s

The U.S. has made impressive progress toward cleaning up its rivers, lakes and streams since 1972, the year Congress passed the Clean Water Act. At that time, studies showed 64% of American waters were unfit for drinking, fishing and swimming.

Inadequate wastewater treatment plants and collection systems were among the worst offenders.

Many billions of dollars and just over three decades later, the percentage of impaired waters in the U.S. has dropped to about 35%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But EPA’s outlook for future progress is grim, according to a detailed analysis, which is available on line at http://www.epa.gov/safewater/gapreport.pdf. Unless billions of dollars more are pumped into infrastructure improvement, the agency warns that water quality easily will slide backward to early-1970s levels.


The American Society of Civil Engineers recently updated its U.S. infrastructure report card and, not surprisingly, ranked wastewater treatment near the bottom of the class. Thousands of miles of pipe are well beyond their design life and there is a great and expensive need to start dealing with the treatment of specific contaminants in watersheds, such as the leaching of nitrogen into Long Island Sound.


Politicians, even those who happily secure funding that helps affix their names to roads, buildings and bridges, rarely go to bat for sewer systems because they are out of sight and out of mind of constituents. One laudable exception is Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (D), who is facing up to a problem that her predecessors ducked. She’s not ashamed to call herself the “Sewer Mayor” and is scrambling to fund a $3-billion upgrade program, triggered by a judicial consent decree. She’s not getting much help from local politicians and the Bush administration is hardly likely to come to her rescue.


The Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies believes that one way to solve the funding dilemma is to create a dedicated trust fund for infrastructure improvements. It is an idea we like because such trust funds, like those in the transportation sector, provide a steady stream of funds that can’t be raided. AMSA is not optimistic about Congress passing any such measure soon, but it feels it is time to begin serious discussion.


Jeanette Brown, who currently is upgrading a wastewater treatment plant in Stamford, Conn., to reduce the flow of nitrogen into Long Island Sound, has an elegant idea. “Why not put a quarter-cent tax on a roll of toilet paper and put that money toward wastewater treatment?” she asks. “Why not collect a penny on every bottle of water and dedicate it to clean water improvement?” Why not, indeed?

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