People, Regulations Strain Water and Sewer Systems Problems with Deteriorating `Environmental Infrastructure' Presage Challenges That Will Soon Confront Cities across the Country

Article excerpt

AMERICA'S water and sewer facilities are staggering under twin demands: expanding urban populations and stricter environmental regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that it will cost $80.4 billion to upgrade municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Of this amount, $12 billion is needed to bring facilities that are violating environmental regulations into compliance.

At the same time, the federal government is reducing its direct spending to help localities build new waste-water treatment plants. After passing the 1972 Clean Water Act with tough new standards for water treatment, Congress dug into its pocket, boosting aid to local governments for water facilities from $1.3 billion in 1972 to $7.2 billion in 1977. The assistance was intended to be temporary, however. By 1990, funding had dropped to $2.6 billion, and the 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act mandate that federal subsidies end by 1994.

As federal assistance dropped off in the late 1980s, local government budgets also were running into new constraints. Though city government revenues shot up 22 percent during the '80s, 54 percent of cities and towns surveyed by the National League of Cities are in the red this year.

With less government money available and water quality standards growing, household water bills could double in the next decade, the EPA reports.

"There is a terrific gap between federal funding and the increasing requirements because of higher environmental standards," says Roger Feldman, a partner at McDermott, Will & Emery, a Washington law firm. Federal support is also lacking to help finance "higher and higher filtration standards" for drinking water, he says. …