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Great Lakes Article:

No retreating from clean water
Journal Gazette
10/18/2002


The 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act today marks a period that began with great strides in cleaning up the nation's waterways and ended with shifting political priorities that threaten to reverse the progress of the last three decades. A pair of dismaying news stories underscores the importance of keeping a national commitment to healthy rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

The Environmental Protection Agency released a study earlier this month showing deteriorating statistics about American waterways from 1998 to 2000. The percentage of water bodies too polluted for fishing or swimming in 2000 stood at nearly 40 percent of stream miles, 45 percent for lake acres and 50 percent estuary acreage - sites where rivers enter oceans. Indiana's rivers and streams are slightly worse than the national average, 41 percent having been found to contain excessive pollution.

The EPA cited improved monitoring methods, not diminished water quality, as the most likely explanation for why the figures worsened since 1998. But the figures reported for 2000 leave plenty of room for improvement, regardless of of how they are interpreted.

More gloom followed the EPA's report a few days later. The Bush administration's chief enforcer of clean water standards told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the administration is reducing money for modernizing sewage-treatment and water-runoff systems. G. Tracy Meehan III blamed spending on anti-terrorism measures and a weakened economy for the reduction.

A gap between the demand for improved water and sewer infrastructure and the ability to pay for it had plagued communities even before Meehan's statement. Sharp rate increases imposed on Fort Wayne sewer users are a result of a lack of money from the federal and state governments.

Ted Rhinehart, director of Public Works and City Utilities, said recent rate increases pay for normal replacement and repairs, plus new infrastructure associated with the $250 million long-term plan to cut the discharge of raw sewage into the three rivers from combined sewer overflows.

"The combination has created a sizable funding gap," Rhinehart said, adding that water and sewer rates are rising well ahead of inflation.

A revolving loan fund available to states is the federal government's main contribution to paying for wastewater and sewer projects. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, rightly told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the annual $1.35 million that has financed the revolving loan fund isn't enough. The Bush administration's proposed $1.21 billion proposal for next year falls far short of what is needed.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, rivers no longer catch fire from pollutants as the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland did in 1969. Indiana's waterways are much cleaner than they were in 1972.

But continued progress depends on more money from the federal government. Simply put, clean water doesn't come cheap.

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