EPA: Third of rivers surveyed too polluted for fishing


Published: Tuesday, October 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 30, 2002 at 11:05 p.m.
WASHINGTON - More than a third of surveyed rivers, and about half of all lakes and estuaries are too polluted for swimming or fishing, the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday. It projected a gap of more than $500 billion in unmet water quality needs over 20 years unless spending on treatment facilities rises significantly.
The agency issued two separate reports on water quality that were each based on 2000 data. In one of the reports, a biennial national water quality inventory that formerly was issued as a report to Congress, the agency said runoff from farmland, sewage treatment plants and changes in the natural flow of streams and rivers is fouling the nation's waters.
From 1998 to 2000, the percentage of polluted streams rose from 35 percent, to 39 percent; the percentage of polluted lakes was unchanged at 45 percent; and the percentage of polluted estuaries increased from 44 percent, to 51 percent.
The second report, a so-called "gap analysis" of water infrastructure needs, says that an increase in real spending on the nation's network of treatment plants by 3 percent above the rate of inflation would be required for cities and towns to keep up with pressing needs.
By 2019, systems could be short $271 billion for wastewater and $263 billion for drinking water - money that would be badly need to replace aging pipes, maintain existing facilities and build new ones to meet rising demand, the agency said.
With the 3 percent spending increases, the gaps could be held to $45 billion for drinking water and $31 billion for wastewater, it said.
G. Tracy Mehan III, EPA's assistant administrator for water programs, blamed deferred maintenance, in adequate capital replacement and a generally aging infrastructure. But he said funding gaps need not be inevitable.
"The overall picture is that probably compared to any country in the world, we've had tremendous success in the past several decades, especially given the rip-roaring growth of the economy and the substantial growth in the population," Mehan said in an interview.
"But there's no doubt we face new challenges, and more complex problems."
Environmentalists said the reports paint a darker picture than that.
"We're not making progress in addressing the remaining sources of water pollution," said Nancy Stoner, director of Natural Resources Defense Council's clean water project.
Owners of water and waste treatment plants immediately suggested that the federal government should pick up the added costs rather than cover them through higher local water and sewer rates.
"It bolsters the need for Congress to act quickly on this," said Adam Krantz, a spokesman for the Water Infrastructure Network, a trade group for local elected officials and drinking water and wastewater administrators. "Without immediate action, we're looking at a massive environmental and public health problem."
EPA's report made no recommendation on who should pick up the tab.
Krantz said, however, that it probably would add to pressure for more federal funding "now that you have the EPA under a Bush administration, which doesn't want to spend money, coming out and positing a very startling high number."
Bush administration officials have said that they opposed a bipartisan House plan to make billions more available to help states with wastewater projects, because defense spending must take priority.
Congress has funded such projects at $1.35 billion annually for the past five years, but President Bush sought $1.21 billion in his budget for the fiscal year starting today. Instead, senate appropriators added $100 million, bringing the potential total to $1.45 billion.
For drinking water, senators proposed $875 million, which is $25 million more than both what Bush wanted in his budget and what was approved last year.

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