Washington — Like a burly plumber with a heavy pipe wrench, Uncle Sam has begun twisting and bending the nation's massive wastewater treatment system. The Reagan administration says the $33 billion construction grants program (the second-largest federal public- works program, topped only by the Interstate highway network) has grown too far and too fast since it was started nine years ago. The President proposes to abruptly end funding to local authorities until a thorough overhaul takes place.
Environmentalists are concerned about proposals to relax water-quality standards, but agree that waste-treatment construction in many places may have occurred too rapidly and added to urban sprawl.
Local officials generally approve of the Reagan plan to leave certain standards and construction decisions up to states and municipalities. But they worry about being left without federal support, with facilities half-built and environmental court cases hanging over their heads.
The major goals of the Clean Water Act of 1972 were to attain "fishable and swimmable" waters by 1983 and end the discharge of all pollution by 1985. Some 13,000 grants were approved and the federal share ballooned from a relatively modest amount to 75 percent of the costs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now says it will take $120 billion to reach cleanup goals (a figure that has grown by $25 billion in just the past three years).
About 3,000 of the approved projects have been completed, but there is a difference of opinion on just how much the quality of the nation's water supply has improved as a result.
Deputy EPA administrator John Hernandez recently testified to "a discernable trend of improved pollution control," pointing to a 65 percent increase in the removal of "biochemical oxygen demand" and "total suspended solids" from public water resources since 1973. The General Accounting Office (GAO), however, has criticized EPA's methods for measuring water-quality improvement.
In any case, there is general agreement that the federal clean-water program has grown to become a major public works behemoth. "Many of the incentives of the program are typical of public works/pork barrel programs," said Clem Rastatter, senior associate of the Conservation Foundation."With a great deal of hindsight, I would probably not support the large federal share and dollar amount."
Various bills now on Capitol Hill (including the administration's) would stretch out clean-water deadlines to 1988, simplify regulations, revise "secondary treatment" requirements, and limit support for "reserve capacity" construction that many feel contributes to unwise urban growth.
The Reagan administration proposes to shift funding from Sunbelt states to the Northeast and Midwest where many older, big-city systems are in need of repair. It also would reduce the federal share and give states greater discretion in how the money would be spent.
Rather than trying to make all water pristine, administration amendments to the Clean Water Act would give highest priority to projects "which demonstrate that significant public health or water-quality benefits will be achieved."
Miss Rastatter of the Conservation Foundation says budget reductions "may be a blessing in disguise," particularly if coupled with "new firm and enforceable deadlines."
"We believe that a shift in financial responsibility away from the federal government, if properly managed, could help avoid the overdesigned, high cost, and unreliable systems which now are troubling so many communities," she told a Senate subcommittee earlier this month. "It is quite clear to us that budget cutting is not inconsistent with national goals for clean water."
With some $1 billion in court-ordered projects remaining around the country, state and local officials are more cautious about cuts. "The level of federal financial commitment must be consistent with the level of federal requireme nts, " Gov. Scott M. Matheson of Utah told senators last week