$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
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
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,"
"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
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.