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Cities Struggle To Pay To Fix Sewage Overflow That Ends Up In Waterways

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hundreds of cities across the country have old sewer systems that were designed to overflow into the nearest waterways, many of them dumping billions of gallons of untreated waste into rivers and lakes every year. But fixing the problem costs a lot of money, and many cities are now struggling to pay for sewage projects mandated by the federal government. Jacob Fenston reports from member station WAMU here in Washington.

JACOB FENSTON, BYLINE: Ever since Washington, D.C., was founded more than 200 years ago, sewage from the city has polluted the Potomac River and the smaller Anacostia River. To get a view of the problem up close, I hopped in a boat with Jim Foster.

JIM FOSTER: So we're underneath the 11th Street Bridge here. We're going to swing around and get...

FENSTON: Foster is president of the Anacostia Watershed Society. He maneuvers the boat around bridge pilings up to a large opening on the shore. This is a combined sewer outfall. There are 47 of them lining the banks of the rivers here. When it rains, sewage spills out 70 to 80 times a year.

FOSTER: It's huge. In a river that has very little flow, this was a huge amount of sewage that would get into the river and just cause these incredibly high levels of bacteria.

FENSTON: Twenty years ago, the Anacostia Watershed Society sued D.C. over the sewage pollution. The result was a legally binding agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency. D.C.'s public sewer utility agreed to build a series of massive new tunnels to fix the problem. But in recent months, officials with the utility were considering trying to scale back the huge project, eyeing its $2.7 billion budget. At a public meeting in June, D.C. Water General Manager David Gadis told residents he was looking at renegotiating the agreement with the EPA.

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DAVID GADIS: And see if we can bring forward some modifications to ease the burden on our customers as we move forward.

FENSTON: D.C. Water was looking at canceling one of three planned tunnels that could save half a billion dollars, lowering residents' water bills, but it would mean continuing to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage into the Potomac each year. Here's Potomac riverkeeper Dean Naujoks.

DEAN NAUJOKS: Washington, D.C., should not be reaching out to EPA and asking for more delays on this project. We want them to end sewage dumping by 2030 - absolutely no later.

FENSTON: D.C. Water recently backed away from the idea of modifying the project after pushback from city officials. But the issue of affordability is a real one and not just in D.C. Adam Krantz is CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He says the federal government is not doing its part to fund these huge projects. Congress passed legislation requiring cities to stop dumping sewage, and lawmakers authorized significant funding, says Krantz. But...

ADAM KRANTZ: None of that funding ever got appropriated. So utilities were all then left on their own through their ratepayer bases to find the solutions to how to do this.

FENSTON: Krantz says more than two dozen cities are currently working with the EPA to modify their agreements as they struggle to afford these sewer upgrades. Jim Foster with the Anacostia Watershed Society says there are plenty of ways to help residents with their water bills without canceling or delaying projects to clean up the rivers.

FOSTER: We've just been living this fantasy that water doesn't cost anything, and that's just wrong.

FENSTON: Congress set a goal in 1972 to make it safe to swim or fish in any river or lake in the nation. Sewage overflows are now one of the last big obstacles to getting there. In D.C., if the sewer project moves ahead as promised, the final tunnel will open in 2030, and the rivers here may once again be clean enough to swim in - only 47 years after Congress' original deadline, 1983.

For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "SOLEIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.