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Christian Science Monitor
Copyright 2002

Friday, April 19, 2002


Waterworks That Need Work

What's the difference between an Interstate highway and a water
main? The federal government has a trust fund to pay for the road;
not so the pipe.

Yet both are critical pieces of national infrastructure, and
water and sewage systems throughout the United States are in urgent
need of repair or replacement, according to government and private
findings. Washington will have to chip in more than it does at
present to ensure against economically and environmentally harmful
system failures.

A draft study prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency
projects a vast gap between current spending levels on water systems
and what will be needed over the next decade and a half. The funding
shortfall could top $650 billion.

The Water Infrastructure Network - a coalition of local
government officials, engineers, and environmentalists - says
spending will need to increase by $23 billion a year between now and

Drought conditions in the Northeast, and worries about protecting
water supplies from terrorist attacks, only underscore the
importance of well-maintained water systems.

Paying for improved water and sewage facilities has historically
been a local responsibility, financed primarily by the rates paid by
property owners and businesses. Across the country, rates have been
jumping as communities take on long-needed improvements in water
systems. Planners worry that there's a limit to how high rates can
go before they damage local economies.

Cities from Tampa, Fla., to Baltimore, to Lansing, Mich., to
Portland, Ore., are having to replace outdated water pipes or dig
new tunnels to handle waste water.

Since passage of landmark clean water legislation in the 1970s,
the federal government has had a hand in such projects. Federal
environmental regulations often mandate better sewage treatment and
waste water disposal. Washington's spending in recent years,
however, has been flat - around $3 billion yearly. Bills now before
Congress would over the next five years increase that to some $8
billion a year for sewage and drinking water projects. The
administration is not eager to pay that tab, given its many other

But with the projections coming from the EPA and others, a bigger public investment in water systems is clearly needed. Local ratepayers will doubtless see their bills go up, and the national benefit of improving these systems justifies a larger federal contribution as well.

(c) Copyright 2002. The Christian Science Monitor



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