Editor's Report

By Carl Molesworth | September 28, 2010

The wastewater infrastructure in the United States is aging and increasingly unable to handle the pressures of modern society. When pipes break and sewers overflow, communities, the environment and our economy all suffer.

The dangers are two-fold. Not only is there a risk to health caused by seepage of bacteria into the groundwater supplies, the water source for nearly half of all Americans, but bacteria in the water also threatens wildlife and habitat by depleting oxygen in the water.

Fixing the problem is an expensive proposition. It is estimated that the nation needs to spend $300 billion to $400 billion over the next 20 years to maintain or improve our wastewater systems. Local governments spend about $63 billion per year on clean water, second only to education spending, but they nevertheless are falling $20 billion per year short of what's needed.

Recognizing that states were faced with clean-water spending requirements well beyond their ability to support, the federal government created the Clean Water State Revolving Fund in the late 1980s. The fund provides states with federal grant money that they then use to make low-interest loans to communities for clean water projects.

Unfortunately, funding for the program has dwindled since it became fully operational in 1991. Since that year, funding has been cut by half (nearly two-thirds when adjusted for inflation), leaving states scrambling to deal with growing backlogs of maintenance and improvement projects.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, broken pipes and sewer overflows spill more than 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage every year and contaminate our beaches, waterways and estuaries.

Figures compiled by the advocacy group Food and Water Watch show that the five states of the Pacific Northwest have wastewater needs totaling $745 million, but their combined federal SRF funding in 2007 was just $54.3 million, or 7 percent of the amount needed. Here is FWW's state-by-state scorecard for the Northwest:

Alaska: As detailed in its Intended Use Plan, Alaska's most recently listed wastewater needs amount to 60 projects costing more than $64 million, 10 times its 2007 federal SRF funding. According to a 2000 EPA assessment, 36 percent of Alaska's river miles and 30 percent of lakes suffer from impaired water quality, as do 89 percent of estuaries and bays and 37 percent of ocean shoreline.

Idaho: The most recent Intended Use Plan lists $173.8 million worth of needed improvements, only 1/33rd of which would be covered by its 2007 federal Clean Water SRF grant of $5.2 million. According to a 2000 EPA assessment, 47 percent of Idaho's analyzed river miles suffer from impaired water quality.

Montana: Montana's Intended Use Plan and Priority List shows the state's current wastewater infrastructure need at $232.2 million, more than 44 times its 2007 federal allotment of $5.2 million. According to EPA's most recently released assessment, 82 percent of the state's river miles and 69 percent of lakes suffer from impaired water quality. Forty-nine percent of those rivers and 60 percent of lakes do not adequately support swimming.

Oregon: In 2008, Oregon expects to face an $86.6-million shortfall between its anticipated spending on wastewater infrastructure and its $133 million in needed improvements. The expected federal contributions will account for just 14 percent of the state's needs. According to EPA's 2000 Water Quality Needs Survey assessment, 23 percent of Oregon's river miles and 24 percent of the state's lake waters are impaired, and 94 percent of estuaries do not support healthy shellfish. Oregon also experienced 66 beach closures or advisory events lasting six weeks or fewer in 2006.

Washington: The clean water infrastructure requires nearly $142 million in improvements and maintenance in 2008, yet the state will be able to fund only half that based on current budget projections. The state's needs amount to more than seven and a half times expected 2008 federal contributions. According to EPA's 2000 Water Quality Needs Survey assessment, 34 percent of Washington's surveyed waterbody segments were impaired. Washington experienced 294 beach closure or advisory events lasting six weeks or fewer in 2006 and three permanent closures, up significantly from 2005.

Given the fickle year-to-year funding of the SRF and the urgency of our clean water troubles, we need a new solution. Food and Water Watch says a federal clean water trust fund would provide a steady, reliable and equitable source of funding for needed projects across the country. By sidestepping the contentious appropriations process, a trust fund would safeguard our clean water infrastructure, our environment and our economy.