Cities, Water Agencies Plead With Congress for Sewer Money

BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTORs staff WASHINGTON Municipalities and water authorities are lobbying Congress for billions of dollars that they need to fix their sewer systems and that the Bush administration has proposed cutting from the federal budget. American Public Works Association members in mid-February explained to congressional staffers how badly they need the money to fix combined sewer

BY ROBERT P. MADER of CONTRACTOR’s staff

WASHINGTON — Municipalities and water authorities are lobbying Congress for billions of dollars that they need to fix their sewer systems and that the Bush administration has proposed cutting from the federal budget.

American Public Works Association members in mid-February explained to congressional staffers how badly they need the money to fix combined sewer overflows.

Many sewer systems were installed in the last half of the 19th century when simply having a sewer system indicated significant progress. Most of sewer systems installed at the time combined wastewater and storm sewers. As a result, the sewer systems release billions of gallons of untreated sewage into lakes and rivers every time a heavy rain occurs.

The association used Portland, Maine, as an example of what’s facing municipalities and water authorities around the country. Speaking to about 35 congressional staffers, Katherine Earley, engineering services manager, and Eric Labelle, city engineer for Portland, called on Congress to increase funding to reduce combined sewer overflows.

“To date, Portland has spent over $30 million to reach an 18% reduction in CSOs, and we expect to spend at least $52 million for the next eight years’ worth of projects in the implementation plan,” Earley said. “Our ratepayers are already paying over 20% more for service and we cannot continue imposing such increases.”

Portland is now faced with continuing its CSO abatement plan while at the same time having to comply with a Phase II mandate. Phase II refers to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System storm water program.

Phase I covered the largest cities in the country. Phase II affects more than 5,000 additional cities with populations of 10,000 to 50,000 people. As many as 700 towns in Illinois, for example, could be affected by Phase II, along with a few hospitals, universities and some military installations.

Brent Larsen, storm water specialist at EPA-Dallas, said Phase II covers about 60 metro areas in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Called “urbanized areas” by the U.S. Census Bureau, these include about 750 municipalities, including both cities and unincorporated county areas.

In Northern California, The Phase II program is being handled by the Bay Area Stormwater Management Agencies Association, a consortium of eight San Francisco Bay area municipal storm water programs. In addition, other agencies, such as the California Department of Transportation and the city and county of San Francisco participate in some BASMAA activities. Together, these programs represent more than 90 agencies, including 79 cities and six counties, and the bulk of the watershed immediately surrounding San Francisco Bay.

If a municipality does not comply with the Phase II program, EPA has the authority to levy administrative penalties of $10,000 per violation per day against owner/operators of sewer systems.

“We are currently exploring the possibility of implementing a new stormwater utility fee in part because our sewer ratepayers cannot bear greater burdens than what our CSO program has already required,” Earley said.

In its September 2004 report to Congress, “Report to Congress: Impacts and Control of CSOs and SSOs,” the EPA documents sewer overflows causing up to 860 billion gal. of wastewater to be discharged annually into U.S. rivers and lakes. The report estimates that it will take $140 billion over 20 years to solve the problem, without any suggestions on where that money should come from. In New England alone, where more than 100 communities are burdened with CSO pipes that discharge hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into waterways, the price tag for eliminating CSOs could run as high as $4 billion.

The Bush administration has proposed to cut dramatically EPA’s clean water funding by $370 million (from $1.09 billion to $730 million) affecting the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund program. The loan program, which 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. APWA, working with the Water Infrastructure Network will continue to urge Congress and the administration to fully fund the loan program.

The congressional briefings are part of an awareness campaign by the APWA to educate congressional staff about the role of public works in U.S. communities and bring attention to increasing environmental program compliance goals with no viable funding mechanism other than increasing taxes or user fees.

The 27,000 members of APWA design, build, operate, and maintain the transportation, water supply, sewage and refuse disposal systems, public buildings, and other structures and facilities that are part of municipal infrastructure.