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Less money for cities to fix water systems?

Water at the Senior Citizens' Housing Center in Louisville, NY before it is filtered.
Julie Grant/The Environment Report
Water at the Senior Citizens' Housing Center in Louisville, NY before it is filtered.

by Julie Grant for The Environment Report

When Ernie Runions took the job as maintenance manager at the Senior Citizens Housing Center in Louisville, New York, he didn’t realize how much time he’d be spending in this small room. The water room. It’s filled with water tanks and filters. Runions says the equipment cost about $25,000 and the price tag keeps rising.

“It’s in terrible shape. It keeps falling apart. Every time we fix it, it’s $5,000, $3,000. This place is right in the hole because of that.”

We fill a bucket with the nursing home’s water – before it’s gone through the extensive filtering.

It smells bad, like eggs and iron. It’s got a blackish tint, and it’s got black particles floating in it.

Runions says even after the filtering, the elderly residents don’t want to drink it. It’s high in sodium, which can be bad for their health. And it smells like chlorine, which Runions uses to kill bacteria.

“And they complain. They say the chlorine is making me itch, all the extra chlorine. I’ve got red blotches all over my body, and my doctor says it’s the chlorine from the building.”

Town leaders say that until a few years ago, everyone used well water. And most people had some kind of problem with it. Nearly half the wells tested had coliform bacteria contamination – some suspected sewage was seeping into the wells.

Residents wanted to build a municipal water system, so they didn’t have to rely on well water. But that’s a multi-million dollar endeavor.

Cities all over the country have problems like this.

Andy Buchsbaum is a director at the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor. He says water and sewer districts make some money by charging for their services:

“But the level of spending that’s needed here to improve sewage infrastructure is so great that individuals and businesses in these municipalities can’t possibly shoulder the burden themselves.”

The biggest federal assistance comes from what’s called the state revolving loan fund. It gives money to states to provide zero or low interest loans to local governments for water and sewer projects.

There’s stiff competition to get the assistance. Michigan had requests for 51 drinking water projects in the coming year – eight of those projects have been offered funding.

The state revolving loan fund also helps communities with wastewater projects.

When there’s a big storm, many older sewer systems can’t handle all the water. So raw sewage overflows, and can wash up on beaches around the Great Lakes.

Detroit has a lot of sewage overflows. The water and sewer department proposed a plan to modernize the sewers. But city officials worried residents couldn’t afford it, so the plan was scaled back.

Buchsbaum says the need to upgrade and build new sewers is growing. But Congress has proposed cutting the state revolving loan program in half.

“The last significant investment that was made in this country was over forty years ago, and sewage pipes just don’t last that long. Therefore we’ve got to invest more in sewage capacity. Instead we’re investing less – and a lot less. And what that slash means is that we’re going to see literally hundreds of billions of gallons of raw and untreated sewage spilling into our lakes and streams.”

Some water industry experts say funding for sewer and drinking water projects got a big boost under the 2009 federal stimulus package. The cuts proposed now in Congress would reduce the state revolving loan fund back to pre-stimulus levels. But they say, even at the highest investment, there wasn’t nearly enough money to meet community needs.