Recently, a cracked valve forced New York City officials to close a Ward's Island sewage treatment plant. As a result, than 300 million gallons of untreated sewage a day spewed out into the Harlem, Hudson, and East Rivers. Parts of Long Island Sound were closed to shellfish harvesting.
Such faulty equipment is only the latest, and a relatively minor, example of the increasing number of problems cities across the United States are faced with in meeting the goals of the Clean Water Act's goal of ''fishable and swimmable'' waters by 1990.
The Ward's Island treatment plant returned to operation six days later. However, it may take many cities until well beyond 1990 to comply with the goals of the Clean Water Act, according to municipal sewerage experts.
Few officials dispute the importance of these goals. Efforts are under way in cities from New York to Chicago to comply. Sewer projects - ranging from repairing and replacing valves and pipes to installing whole new facilities - are receiving urgent attention and, in some cases, billions of dollars in combined federal, state, and city funding.
Yet, with few exceptions, the Clean Water Act's current goals will remain elusive for the foreseeable future because federal funding is decreasing and experts say financially hard-pressed states and municipalities won't be able to pick up the tab for the remaining, and growing, costs.
The problems of providing acceptable public sewage treatment are by no means limited to New York, Chicago, and other older industrial cities. Newer Sunbelt cities like Tuscon, Ariz., and Dallas, Texas, are also finding that expanding populations require mammoth expenditures for new infrastructure.
According to a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the nation would have to spend $118.4 billion to meet the Clean Water Act's goals by the year 2000. This is based on a projected increase in population from the current 230 million people to 279 million by the turn of the century.
A more immediate concern to city officials and environmentalists is what effect Washington budget shrinkers will have on sewer projects in the next few crucial years and throughout the rest of the decade.
''The Reagan administration has served notice that it wants the federal contribution to new sewer construction to end,'' says Ronald Linton, executive director of the 92-member Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies. This federal share is $2.4 billion a year through fiscal 1985, a dramatic decrease in the amount of the federal dollars that flowed into new sewer work prior to the current administration.
In a recent speech, deputy EPA administrator John W. Hernandez said ''high priority'' sewer projects would continue to get some federal money, but that the responsibility for defining water-quality standands for treated waste water would increasingly be given to individual states. This administration plan predated Mr. Reagan's election, but has gained support and momentum under this administration. Environmentalists say this shift of responsibility may appreciably diminish the water quality of the nation's rivers and lakes.
Another problem facing municipalities in their fight to comply with the Clean Water Act by 1990 is the large amount of time it takes to build and equip some of these gigantic, modern treatment facilities. A treatment facility on the Hudson River in New York City is years behind schedule. And whenever officials talk about clearing up the heavily polluted East River here, the response is usually laughter. Any fish found in the river are only swimming through it on the way somewhere else, scientists quip.
Milwaukee needs money as much as time. In fact, Milwaukee is under a federal court order to improve its waste treatment.
''Our building program is on schedule at the moment,'' explains Harold Cahill , who heads the Milwaukee Sewerage District, ''but you cannot cut back on the level of (federal) assistance and still keep the same level of enforcement. They (the federal government) can't ride both horses. That's just common sense.''