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Great Lakes Article:

Protect clean water with a trust fund
By Joann Watson and Wenonah Hauter
Detroit Free Press
Posted October 18, 2007

Today, one of America's most important laws for protecting the environment and human health -- the Clean Water Act -- turns 35.

While we've made tremendous progress since 1972, over the past few years we've begun to lose ground because of insufficient water infrastructure funding. Some of our sewer systems are more than 100 years old, and the pipes under our homes and streets are deteriorating at a rapid rate.

As recent tragedies have shown, the United States' national infrastructure has seen decades of neglect, resulting in devastating consequences. Our water systems, although less visible, are also facing a similar problem -- one that may lead to a public health crisis.

The Great Lakes State has seen shoreline activities hampered due to increased beach closures or advisory days. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows nationwide beach closings and swimming advisories were at an all-time high in 2006. Michigan experienced 124 closures and advisories lasting six weeks or fewer in 2006, one extended, and three permanent.

Not only are our beaches inundated by pollution, but most of our waterways are considered dangerous for swimming and fishing. According to the EPA's most recently released assessment, 24% of the state's river miles and 100% of lakes suffer from impaired water quality. Additionally, none of Michigan's Great Lakes shore miles fully support fish consumption, and 99% of the state's wetlands are impaired.

Despite these disturbing statistics, federal funding for clean water has become an annual political battle. The EPA estimates that we are falling short on water infrastructure spending by a whopping $22 billion per year. Overall federal government contribution to total clean water spending has shrunk dramatically, from 78% in 1978 to just 3% today. Fiscal year 2007 saw the Clean Water State Revolving Fund -- which administers money to states for clean water projects -- funded at some of the lowest levels in history, and for 2008 the president has requested states be given a mere $688 million, the least funding since the program's inception.

Without sufficient federal money driving the process, states must pick and choose from often hundreds of needed maintenance and improvement projects. Federal contributions to Michigan's clean water funding efforts have decreased by 47.8% since the Clean Water SRF was fully implemented in fiscal 1991 and 65.9% when adjusted for inflation. In 2007, Michigan received only

$46 million from the federal government -- less than one-thirty-eighth of its needs.

While Michigan is making tremendous efforts to handle clean water requirements, the problem is too big to be handled without federal assistance. Given the fickle year-to-year funding and the urgency of the clean water troubles, a new solution is needed.

We need to plan ahead for future generations and create a dedicated source of public funding so that communities across America can keep their water clean, safe and affordable.

A clean water trust fund would provide a steady, reliable and equitable source of funding for needed projects across the country. By sidestepping the contentious appropriations process, a trust fund would safeguard our clean water infrastructure, environment and economy.

Our country already has federal trust funds established for highways, harbors and wildlife habitats. Clean water certainly warrants federal support and deserves the same protection.

For the sake of Michigan, our nation and its future, we need to secure the protection of clean water that keeps our communities livable, our lifestyles possible, and our industries viable. Our water infrastructure needs help now. It is time for a trust fund for clean and safe water.

JOANN WATSON is a Detroit City Council member, and WENONAH HAUTER is executive director of Food & Water Watch. Write to them in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or at


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