Proposed dilution of Clean Water Act stirs concern

Ronald Reagan wants to change the strategy in the war against sewage in order to win the battle against government waste. The budget shrinkers at the White House think they have found a way to reduce the amount spent on sewers and waste treament plants without appreciably diminishing the drive to make US rivers clean again.

Many municipal leaders view such a move "with great alarm," according to a US Conference of Mayors official. But key local and congressional sources nonetheless agree that important amendments to the federal Clean Water Act are inevitable.

For 1981, the White House wants to rescind $1 billion (about 30 percent) of the funds already appropriated for such programs. Funds for 1982 and beyond would be similarly reduced, and also held up pending "major reforms" to the program.

"There is a lot of environmental sentiment out there, but there certainly will be amendments to the Clean Water Act," predicts a congressional source close to the subject.

Local officials, too, seem to expect as much. Says Ken Kirk of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies: "We're certainly not heartened by the cuts, but I don't think at this point we're in a position [politically] to fight them."

Changes in the act to be submitted to Congress by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will likely include a refocusing of the waste treatment programs on projects, as budget documents put it, "selected and designed to significantly improve the quality of the receiving waters in the near term."

This means that environmental tests will focus on the quality of streams and rivers into which treated effluent is returned rather than on making the effluent itself as pure as technologically possible. The administration insists that this can be done "without sacrificing our objective of cleaner water."

Other changes anticipated include shifting more of the financial burden to states and localities (the federal government now contributes 75 percent of the cost) and increasing "user fees." This could affect housing development and commercial construction. Such development will be affected in any case, since the Reagan plan includes cutting off funds for sewer and waste-treatment programs designed to meet population projections or that "contribute to urban sprawl."

All of this may not be as radical or disruptive as it sounds. Local officials would not mind having some of the federal clean water requirements eased, as long as they can be assured that there will not be an abrupt funding cutoff without such changes. Many cities (Milwaukee, for example) are under federal court order to improve waste treatment and in the midst of projects costing many millions, in some cases billions, of dollars.

A spokesman for the National League of Cities says, however, that he does not expect local officials to be left "holding the bag."

Sewage treatment construction grants amount to the largest federal nonmilitary public works programs, accounting for some 70 percent of the EPA's budget. The ERA recently estimated that to meet the Clean Water Act's goal of "fishable and swimmable? waters by 1990 would cost about $120 billion, nearly one-third of that sum for upgrading combined sewer and storm overflow systems.

The assumptions under which such projections were made now are likely to be changed, however, and the Reagan administration is counting on such changes to mean less federal spending on sewers and waste treat ment.

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