TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Efforts to upgrade crumbling sewer systems in
the Great Lakes region would take a hit under a 20 percent cut President
Barack Obama proposed for a federal wastewater loan program, advocates said
The region’s eight states receive roughly one-third of the money from the
fund, which provides low-interest loans for communities to replace aging
pipes and make other improvements in their drinking water and sewage
treatment infrastructure. Under the 2013 budget Obama released this week,
the Great Lakes region would get about $427 million, down from $533 million
this year. Nationwide, nearly $1.2 billion would be available.
"That’s a problem we’re going to have to work on and reverse,” said Jeff
Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which
represents more than 100 conservation and environmental groups. “The nation
needs to be increasing, not cutting, its investment in these funds.”
Cities in the region have made improvements. But overflows of untreated or
partially treated sewage and polluted stormwater remain a big problem. A
2010 study by Healing Our Waters found that during the previous year, 41
billion gallons were discharged into the lakes by five cities: Cleveland,
Detroit, Milwaukee, Buffalo, N.Y., and Gary, Ind.
Sewage overflows sometimes lead to beach closures when bacteria levels in
near-shore waters get too high.
Skelding said his coalition would lobby Congress to keep funding of the
federal loan program at its existing level or increase it.
Lisa Jackson, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, said this week
that protecting U.S. water quality remains a top priority despite cutbacks
in some programs.
"These are difficult times and we have competing priorities,” Jackson said.
She said the administration is putting together a plan for making the most
efficient use of water system funding. It will include stepped-up use of
“green infrastructure” — wetlands, permeable pavement and other features
that help rainwater soak into the ground instead of flowing into swollen
streams and lakes.
Chuck Hersey, planning and policy development leader with the Southeast
Michigan Council of Governments, said the proposed cut in federal loans was
disappointing. “They’re cutting 20 percent out of a number that was woefully
inadequate to begin with,” he said.
While sewer overflows draw lots of attention, an even bigger problem is
leaks in underground pipes that enable groundwater to seep in and flow to
plants where it gets unnecessary treatment, Hersey said. Pipes sometimes
deteriorate to the point that they burst — a huge expense to fix.
“One could argue we’ll see even more of these things happen” as system
upgrades are delayed, he said.
Federal funding of water treatment systems is higher than it was before
Obama took office, thanks to an infusion of economic stimulus money, said
David Ullrich, director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities
“So for that we’re thankful, but we are so far behind on making the
necessary investments to bring the systems up to date that any reduction
hurts,” he said.