Waterworks That Need Work

What's the difference between an Interstate highway and a water main? The federal government has a trust fund to pay for the road; not so the pipe.

Yet both are critical pieces of national infrastructure, and water and sewage systems throughout the United States are in urgent need of repair or replacement, according to government and private findings. Washington will have to chip in more than it does at present to ensure against economically and environmentally harmful system failures.

A draft study prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency projects a vast gap between current spending levels on water systems and what will be needed over the next decade and a half. The funding shortfall could top $650 billion.

The Water Infrastructure Network – a coalition of local government officials, engineers, and environmentalists – says spending will need to increase by $23 billion a year between now and 2020.

Drought conditions in the Northeast, and worries about protecting water supplies from terrorist attacks, only underscore the importance of well-maintained water systems.

Paying for improved water and sewage facilities has historically been a local responsibility, financed primarily by the rates paid by property owners and businesses. Across the country, rates have been jumping as communities take on long-needed improvements in water systems. Planners worry that there's a limit to how high rates can go before they damage local economies.

Cities from Tampa, Fla., to Baltimore, to Lansing, Mich., to Portland, Ore., are having to replace outdated water pipes or dig new tunnels to handle waste water.

Since passage of landmark clean water legislation in the 1970s, the federal government has had a hand in such projects. Federal environmental regulations often mandate better sewage treatment and waste water disposal. Washington's spending in recent years, however, has been flat – around $3 billion yearly. Bills now before Congress would over the next five years increase that to some $8 billion a year for sewage and drinking water projects. The administration is not eager to pay that tab, given its many other priorities.

But with the projections coming from the EPA and others, a bigger public investment in water systems is clearly needed. Local ratepayers will doubtless see their bills go up, and the national benefit of improving these systems justifies a larger federal contribution as well.

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