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EPA: funding and pollution problems persist. (Water Quality).

The provision of wastewater treatment and clean drinking water may experience a funding gap of more than $500 billion between projected needs and current spending levels during the next two decades. Despite this crisis, nonpoint-source pollution (NPSP) remains the nation's largest water quality threat. These are the findings of two reports released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2002, The Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis and the National Water Quality Inventory: 2000 Report.

The starting points for the gap analysis were ongoing EPA surveys of the nation's 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment plants and 75,400 drinking water systems. Comparing projected growth to current spending levels, the gap analysis projects an average capital and operations/maintenance gap of $271 billion for wastewater treatment and $263 billion for drinking water by 2019. And assuming that spending will increase by 3% per year, the gap narrows to $31 billion for wastewater treatment and $45 billion for drinking water.

Paul Pinault, executive director of the Narrangansett Bay Commission and president of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, says the gap was created in large part when the federal government backed away from "its commitment to fund water and wastewater infrastructure." He notes, for example, that the EPA's proposed fiscal year 2004 budget would cut monies for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program by nearly $500 million over previous budgets. This fund was mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1987 to provide low-interest loans for infrastructure improvements.

G. Tracy Mehan III, EPA assistant administrator of the Office of Water, says the 2004 budget extends the federal commitment to fund wastewater treatment through 2011 and drinking water through 2018. He further says that utilities need to look at every opportunity to close the gap, including full-cost pricing (charging customers the actual cost of the service), proper asset management, and anticipating problems before they occur. He also recommends implementing water reuse projects, increasing federal funding, and consolidating resources, purchasing power, and systems.

The crisis in water infrastructure funding is dire, but NPSP is an even greater threat to U.S. water quality, according to the National Water Quality Inventory: 2000 Report. In this latest version of the report, which is released every two years, the EPA assessed 19% of the nation's river and stream miles, and found that 39% do not support all their intended uses (for example, drinking water supplies or fishing areas). Impairment was slightly higher for the 43% of the lake, pond, and reservoir acres and the 36% of estuarine square miles assessed. Approximately 78% of the 92% of Great Lakes shore miles assessed were impaired.

Mehan says this report includes point-source data and so does not provide an accurate "watershed" picture. In addition, monitoring is not standardized across data, so different municipalities collect data differently. The report will not be used in the EPA's state-of-the-environment report, due later this year.

Kenneth Reckhow, director of the University of North Carolina Water Resources Research Institute on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, agrees. Monitoring strategies vary by state, but there is a focus on assessing the impacts of point-source discharge, even though NPSP is a leading cause of water pollution, he says. In addition, states tend to visit the same monitoring sites year after year.

To develop a comprehensive picture of statewide water quality, Reckhow says, states should undertake probability sampling so that monitoring results could be extrapolated to unmonitored sites. To assess NPSP, however, he recommends that researchers sample during and after rainstorms at locations affected by NPSP.

Mehan says the nation needs to maintain the water infrastructure gains of the past 30 years while controlling NPSP. "We've made all the gains we're going to make without dealing with the whole watershed," he says. Techniques such as water quality trading, watershed management, and the EPA's Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, program, which assigns load allocations of pollutants to watersheds, can be used to alleviate some NPSP. He estimates that 40,000 TMDLs will be implemented by municipalities in the next 15 years.

The reports are available online at and 305b/2000report/.
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Author:Hun, Tara
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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