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$500 Billion Needed to Fix Crumbling U.S. Water Infrastructure

By Sarah Lesher

Special to the Sentinel


Lead in the water has forced metro residents to suddenly think about how the stuff gets to their taps, even though most of them never did before.And Governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr.'s proposed "flush tax" is forcing them to think about what happens to the water afterwards and maybe pay more for it.

The same citizens who rail against potholes and traffic congestion and fallen power lines give few thoughts to crucial infrastructure underground and its slow decay.

But the public may have started to think about these issues as the lead scare and the "flush tax" make daily headlines.

A nationwide survey this month shows that 91 percent of respondents are concerned that waterways will not be clean for future generations.

And 80 percent believe that if $87 billion can be spent to upgrade Iraqi and Afghan infrastructure, the same amount of investment should be made at home, according to Lee Garrigan, director of legislative affairs for the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA), member of a broad-based coalition of stakeholders called the Water Infrastructure Network.

There's a $23 billion shortfall per year over 20 years that has to be put into refurbishing the nation's water and sewage infrastructure, above and beyond what is spent on operation and maintenance, she said.

That adds up to $460 billion, considerably more than $87 billion. Estimates have been made by the GAO [General Accounting Office] and the Congressional Budget Office as well as by WIN, Garrigan said.

The estimated cost of refurbishing has been as high as $800 billion to $1 trillion, according to published reports.

Montgomery County's water and sewer lines date back to the 1920's, but are younger than the District of Columbia's. And they don't have the problem of combined sanitary and storm sewers carrying both waste and storm water runoff from streets that flood sewage treatment plants during heavy rains, forcing the plants to divert raw sewage to the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

But they still have plenty of problems.

Figures show more water flowing into sewage treatment plants during periods of heavy rain than dry periods, a symptom of cracks in sewer lines that let water infiltrate, said David W. Lake, special assistant for water and wastewater policy, Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection.

And where water can leak in, sewage can leak out.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of miles of sewer pipes laid along the beds of streams flowing into the Anacostia. Many of these are exposed and leaking sewage into the streams," said Jim Connolly, executive director, Anacostia Watershed Society.

Monitoring of fecal coliform [the intestinal bacteria in sewage] has shown that the problem is worse upstream in the area served by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) than in the downstream area served by the District's Water and Sewer Authority WASA (WASA).

"We're trying to get WSSC to take responsibility for the input [of fecal coliform bacteria] that their infrastructure is having on streams. We want them to identify sources and fix them," Connolly said.

WSSC has drafted a policy to begin looking at problems with sewer systems on a watershed by watershed basis, but they have started in Rock Creek and Cabin John, in the areas flowing into the Potomac, rather than the Anacostia basin, Lake said.

"The Anacostia basin sewer system definitely needs to be focused on. This past year this issue was raised by the Montgomery County Council," he said.

"I'm not saying WSSC hasn't been responsive, but the issue needs to be addressed. The Anacostia basin has a very important part of the sewer infrastructure, but to date it has not been a priority of WSSC," Lake said.

The fundamental problem is money. There haven't been any bond issues in Maryland in recent years for capital improvements to the system. Operation and maintenance comes from the rates users pay. Local governments fund improvements with loans based on the payments anticipated from ratepayers, said Virginia Kearney, deputy director, Water Management Administration, Maryland Department of the Environment.

Funds from Congress through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) form a water quality revolving loan fund. After the State of Maryland contributes 20 percent matching funds, this pot of money is used for loans to local government entities such as WSSC, to be paid back over 20 years. The repaid principal, plus interest, goes back out into other loans, she said.

"We're contemplating $70 million [in funding to local governments] this year somewhere between $50 million and $70 million," Kearney said.

WSSC fully supports efforts currently under way in Congress to increase federal funding for water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades, said Chuck Brown, spokesman for WSSC.

As an agency dedicated to public and environmental health, increased federal funding to replace older water and sewer mains will help us continue to fulfill our mission of supplying clean, reliable drinking water to our customers and safely transporting wastewater to treatment plants, he said.

"Over the past several years, we have dramatically increased funding for our water and sewer reconstruction programs targeting infrastructure that dates back to the 1920s for replacement and rehabilitation. Additional federal funding will allow us to further enhance these important programs," Brown said.

The "flush tax" is still a work in progress but, as framed now, it could help contributed to upgraded treatment for what comes out of those sewers, en route to the Chesapeake, Kearney said.

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