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Budget cuts may hurt attempts to clean waters

Shannon Brennan / sbrennan@newsadvance.com
February 9, 2005

Efforts to clean up Virginia’s streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay could be slowed if a Bush administration proposal to cut federal clean water funding by 33 percent gets through Congress.

Virginia would lose $7.4 million in the 2006 budget, a combined loss of $12.5 million since 2004.

“From the statewide perspective, it’s a definite negative,” said Walter Gills, director of the construction assistance program with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Gills oversees programs like Lynchburg’s Combined Sewer Overflow project, which is disconnecting old sewer lines from stormwater lines to prevent raw sewage from flowing into streams and the James River.

The Lynchburg project is expected to take 10 to 20 more years, and to cost well over $200 million to complete. Much of the money comes from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the primary target of Bush’s proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The revolving fund, a loan program that helps local communities repair and replace aging treatment plants, has been the primary source of federal support for clean water infrastructure projects since its creation in 1987.

Gills said the proposed cut also reduces the state’s leveraging power. For example, $12.5 million in federal money might actually provide the state with $20 million to $30 million, he said. The money could be put into a debt service reserve fund and used as security to buy bonds, he said.

Jeff Corbin, deputy director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Virginia, said such a cut would have a significant impact on the time frame to clean up the bay.

“Our big push is to clean nutrient pollution in the bay,” he said.

Upgrading sewer treatment plants is the most efficient way to reduce the nutrient overload.

The bay foundation has been pushing a user fee of $1 per week per household to create a steady funding stream for sewer treatment upgrades. The legislation is stalled in the General Assembly with little chance of passage.

The proposed cuts to funding in Chesapeake Bay-area states and Washington, D.C., would be $79.4 million.

Overall, the Bush administration is seeking to cut the EPA budget by $500 million, or 5.6 percent, from $8.02 billion to $7.57 billion.

The bulk of the reduction is a $361 million cut to the State Revolving Fund program, which would suffer a 33 percent loss from 2005.

Studies by EPA, the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office and the Water Infrastructure Network estimate a water infrastructure-funding gap exceeding $300 billion over the next 20 years. This is the second year in a row that the Bush administration has sought to cut the EPA budget.

Last year, it requested a 7 percent cut from 2004 to $7.76 billion, but Congress funded EPA a total of $8.02 billion.

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