________________________________________________________________________ Costs are going up for pure, clear water Copyright ) 1997 Nando.net Copyright ) 1997 Governing Magazine (December 27, 1997 00:24 a.m. EST http://www.nando.net) - From crowded cities to rural villages, from wealthy suburbs to ramshackle trailer parks, an essential component for a livable community is clean drinking water. And Americans everywhere take its availability for granted. Maybe they shouldn't. Around the country, public officials are finding it hard to live up to that trust. State and local agencies are facing persistent financial and technical barriers to supplying safe drinking water. The nation's 55,000 community water systems need to spend $12.1 billion to install or upgrade treatment plants, storage tanks and pipes just to correct contamination problems that have already been identified. Over the next two decades, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey released earlier this year, they'll need to invest another $126.3 billion to replace aging infrastructure and comply with the evolving standards set by federal regulators. Congress set up $9.6 billion in state loan funds to help communities finance badly needed drinking water improvements. But that money has to be repaid, and homeowners and business owners are likely to rebel against the higher water bills that both private and government-owned utilities will have to charge to cover the compliance costs. Although big-city and suburban systems will bear the largest percentage of the costs, predominantly rural states will have a more difficult time financing the improvements that isolated small-town water utilities will be forced to undertake. Even in Vermont, a still-rural state whose 588,000 residents live amidst a green landscape of thick forests, sparkling lakes and rushing mountain streams, "there are a lot of stresses on our water," says Sandra Levine, a Conservation Law Foundation attorney in Montpelier. First enacted in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act empowered EPA to set maximum contaminant levels for health-threatening microbes, chemicals and other substances that could find their way into drinking water systems. Although Congress significantly altered the law in 1996 to give states greater flexibility, there's no doubt that environmental group pressure and public fears aroused by events such as Milwaukee's 1993 outbreak of Cryptosporidium contamination will force municipal agencies and privately owned water utilities to accept the burden of providing purer water. Since 1993, Milwaukee has upgraded its system for filtering water from Lake Michigan, and other major cities that rely on surface supplies face hefty bills for installing or improving filtration systems. Earlier this year, EPA filed a lawsuit to force New York City to build a $533 million plant to start filtering water from its Croton Watershed reservoir, the source of 10 percent of the city's consumption. Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, Omaha and Seattle are among other cities that are likely to spend $100 million or more apiece on filtration plants to comply with EPA's rule requiring that surface water be treated. Over the next 20 years, EPA figures that the 800 largest systems (those serving more than 50,000 people) will spend nearly $60 billion of the $138 billion required to keep water safe to drink. That will be painful, but at least big-city systems can cover the costs of treating water and monitoring for problems by spreading rate increases across large numbers of customers. The thornier problem is that more than 46,000 public water systems serve small towns, rural subdivisions, trailer parks or resort developments with less than 3,300 people. As they've developed since 1986, "federal regulations differentiate very little between large and small systems," Vermont's Rutherford points out. "It's very difficult for smaller systems to stay in compliance just with the operating aspects, to say nothing about construction," Rutherford says. Smaller communities, therefore, have to jack up their rates significantly to pay for sophisticated water quality tests and install filtering devices to comply with drinking water standards. By EPA's calculations, the smallest systems would have to spend an average of $3,300 over the next 20 years for each household they serve. That's more than triple the per-household cost for bigger systems, and double what EPA calculates for each family in a medium-sized community. Some rural communities would just as soon throw in the towel. The Starksboro Water Co., a private utility owned by its customers, has been supplying about 60 homes in Starksboro, Vt., with drinking water from a Green Mountain spring since 1906. The firm has unsuccessfully petitioned the state public service board for permission to go out of business rather than comply with the Vermont Environmental Conservation Department's requirements. The agency figures the average Vermont household can afford to pay $375 a year for water, but Starksboro residents see no good reason to raise rates that now average around $75 annually. "We've got good water now," contends Fenwick Espey, the company's president. "The state wants and wants, but they don't have any money to want with. We don't either, so we can't afford to keep going."
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