retreating from clean water
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.