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Tens of billions have been spent to address sewage overflows into the Great Lakes, but billions more are needed to get a handle on the infrastructure issues at the root of the problem.
Where that money will come from, and the importance of sustaining a federal loan program as a key piece of that effort, was the subject of a recent hour-long Alliance webinar featuring Alliance Water Quality Director Lyman Welch and Adam Krantz of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
Krantz said the U.S. EPA estimates a need for more than $64 billion in the next 20 years to address the critical problem of Combined Sewer Overflows, “and we believe the true figure is likely considerably higher now.”
CSOs occur when heavy rain flows into antiquated sewage systems that combine stormwater and sanitary sewer pipes, ultimately overwhelming treatment plants and forcing the diversion of raw sewage into public waters.
A recent Alliance study, “Reducing Combined Sewer Overflows in the Great Lakes: Why Investing in Infrastructure is Critical to Protecting Water Quality,” reported that in 2011 alone, some 18.7 billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater was dumped into the Great Lakes by seven of the basin’s largest dischargers. A total of 64 beach closures were recorded in 2010, all related to sewage overflows.
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“It comes down to people who enjoy the Great Lakes don’t want to have untreated sewage going into the lakes,” said Welch, who co-authored the study. “Sewage overflows are a major problem, and that is something we can and should address to improve our infrastructure.”
Welch cited the success of the federal Clean Water State Revolving Fund in helping communities finance costly wastewater management and green infrastructure projects. Since its inception in 1987, the fund has received $33.5 billion in federal investment and provided $89.5 billion in loans to states to help municipalities finance such projects. For every federal dollar appropriated, states contribute 20 cents. Principal repayment, interest earnings and proceeds from leveraging the loans all contribute to the fund’s growth.
But federal funding for the program appears to be on a downtick, according to Krantz, who said a recent House appropriations bill proposes to allocate $695 million to the CWSRF, down from more than $1.3 billion. “So we have our work cut out for us to defend current funding levels, let alone trying to get new money,” he said.
That’s the challenge for communities working to address sewage overflow problems, Krantz said, noting municipalities already spend $100 billion or more a year and are starting to see the cost of water infrastructure work in their budgets come second only to education -- more than is spent for police, first responders and hospitals.
“We’re going to keep pushing for federal funding for CSO programs as strong as we can, whether it’s through the SRF, direct grants or other tools,” he said. “But right now clearly the weight is on the ratepayer, and on our utilities and communities, to pay for these programs.
“We need to make sure the federal government remains a partner with us on clean water funding.”
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