The Brookings Report
On Wednesday, May 23 the Brookings Institution released a report titled, “Cleaner Rivers for the National Capital Region: Sharing the Cost.” The report concisely and clearly outlines the funding challenge that DC Water faces implemented a range of mammoth capital projects – the largest of which is the Clean Rivers Project. Clean Rivers, a plan to reduce combined sewer overflows to the Anacostia, Rock Creek and Potomac, is currently estimated to cost $2.6 billion dollars. Also noted is the billion dollar project we are implementing to reduce nutrient discharges to the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay, and the billions needed as well for upgrades to the fundamental water and sewer infrastructure that is out of sight, and often therefore out-of-mind.
Brookings highlights the declining federal role in funding this type of work, even as the requirements to accomplish the work is mandated by the federal government as well. The challenge in DC and many other cities with combined sewers (more than 700 nationwide) is that these systems were designed a generation ago – when combined sewers were state of the art and a vast improvement over the untreated sewage running through cities at the time. (In DC, untreated sewage used to run though a canal that ran essentially parallel to the current national mall, right through the middle of the city. CSOs are ultimately not good, but removing sewage from the middle of the city is one of the most important public health improvements of the last century.) The problem is that current ratepayers are being asked nationwide to fund a solution to a problem that has a history going back at least a century – often at almost unbelievable cost. In DC we have established an impervious area charge to cover the capital costs of the Clean Rivers project, which is the fastest rising portion of water and sewer bills that are already on steep upward climb as far as we can project into the future.
Brookings proposes several solutions including a larger sense of beneficiaries paying for these improvements, rather than the focus on the relatively small ratepayer base in Washington, DC. The “polluter pays” principle that governs most pollution remedies makes more sense when there is a “polluter” who is making money from a product, the by-product of which is environmental harm. The polluter pays principle in those cases internalizes environmental costs to the company and then the product. In this case, the problem is not with a money-making polluter, but with the system design for a public utility. A design planned, built and operated for most of its history by the federal government!
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