Congress Considers Grants for Water Security Programs

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has proposed legislation authorizing $245 million in federal grants to mitigate the costs of security enhancements...

by Patrick Crow, Wahsington Correspondent

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has proposed legislation authorizing $245 million in federal grants to mitigate the costs of security enhancements for drinking water and wastewater facilities.

Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said drinking water systems have completed vulnerability assessments required by bioterrorism laws and his bill would provide funds to help the systems make improvements identified in those assessments.

He said the Government Accountability Office has reported that the collection systems of wastewater treatment systems and the distribution systems of drinking water systems are the two areas most in need of federal funding.

Inhofe’s Water Security Act proposes $200 million to conduct or update vulnerability assessments, implement security improvements, develop or improve emergency response plans and site security plans, and to create mutual aid networks. If appropriated, federal funding would be limited to 50% of project costs.

The bill would provide $15 million for technical assistance for small community water systems and for nonprofit organizations to conduct training programs. It would authorize $1 million/year through 2011 for non-profit organizations to improve vulnerability assessment methodologies and $5 million/year for research into security for drinking water distribution systems and for wastewater collection systems.

“This legislation, if ultimately funded by Congress, will provide much needed assistance to local drinking water systems seeking to improve the security of their facilities and the safety of their communities,” said Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA).

“It’s worth noting,” added VanDe Hei, “that this bill covers not only protection from terrorism, but preparedness against accidental incidents and natural disasters.”

She said after 9/11, water systems conducted vulnerability assessments and boosted security at their facilities as much as possible but the Inhofe bill would help leverage local dollars to make further improvements possible.

AMWA said a survey of its members earlier this year found that less than 40% of drinking water systems have been able to get Department of Homeland Security grants for security upgrades and utilities have been frustrated by limits on how those funds may be used.

Infrastructure Funding

Prompted partly by the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, the Senate has unanimously passed a bill to address the deterioration of bridges, roads, drinking water systems, solid waste disposal systems, dams and other public works.

The bill creates a commission to report by early 2010 on “the state of the nation’s infrastructure, including: capacity of infrastructure improvements to sustain current and anticipated economic development; the age, condition and capacity of public infrastructure; repair and maintenance needs; financing methods; and investment requirements.”

The commission report would detail the infrastructure improvements deemed necessary over the next 5, 15, 30 and 50 years.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is expected to consider similar legislation this fall.

“The I-35W bridge tragedy was proof that this nation is long overdue for an infrastructure overhaul,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). “We simply cannot allow what happened in Minneapolis to occur anywhere else in this country.”

Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) also filed a bill to create a national infrastructure bank to finance publicly owned drinking water systems, wastewater systems, mass transit systems, housing properties, roads, and bridges.

The bank would develop financing packages that could include direct subsidies, loan guarantees, and bonds. To qualify, a project would need to have a potential federal investment of at least $75 million, have regional or national significance, and be sponsored by a public entity.

Modeled after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the bank would target large projects that are not adequately served by current financing mechanisms.

Despite the concerns of legislators, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that federal and state spending for roads, bridges, and waterworks has been grown steadily during the last 50 years, averaging 2.3%/year.

CBO said more than half of federal capital spending, about $34 billion, went for highways and roads in 2006 while water supply and wastewater treatment funding totaled $2.2 billion.

Drug Testing

Tests at sewage treatment plants could determine patterns of drug use − from cocaine to coffee − in entire communities, the American Chemical Society has been told.

In a presentation at the society’s annual meeting, Oregon State University chemist Jennifer Field described methodologies that she and colleagues developed to help public health and law enforcement officials identify patterns of drug abuse across municipalities of all sizes.

The presence of both pharmaceutical and illicit drugs in municipal wastewater has been known for several years. Field and her colleagues developed methods to detect chemicals in very small samples taken automatically over a 24-hour period from wastewater as it enters a treatment plant.

“It’s like a very diluted urine sample collected from an entire community,” Field said.

The analysis can detect the presence of illicit drugs, from methamphetamine to Ecstasy, and other markers of human presence such as caffeine and cotinine (a break-down product of nicotine from cigarette smoke).

Field said finding patterns of drug consumption in the wastewater can alert municipalities to problems that occur in particular communities or at particular times. This may be useful for tracking such things as the geographic patterns of methamphetamine use.

The researchers tested wastewater from 10 mid-sized municipalities, calculating the concentrations of individual drugs and using the volume of wastewater flowing into the treatment plant and the municipal population in order to estimate the community load of each drug.

In their preliminary study, the researchers saw higher concentrations of recreational drugs (such as cocaine) on weekends. They found no change in concentrations of either prescription drugs or methamphetamines in their samples over time, which suggests more consistent use of both.

NRDC Beach Report

Inadequate sewage treatment made the water at American beaches unsafe for swimming a record number of days last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said.

Evaluating Environmental Protection Agency data, NRDC said there were more than 25,000 closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2006. The number of no-swim days caused by stormwater more than doubled from the year before.

“Vacations are being ruined. Families can’t use the beaches in their own communities because they are polluted. Kids are getting sick − all because of sewage and contaminated runoff from outdated, under-funded treatment systems,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s water program.

In addition to compiling data on 3,500 U.S. beaches, the report also examined the nation’s highest risk beaches − those that are either very popular, close to pollution sources, or both. Of those highest risk beaches, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Minnesota ranked the worst for failing to meet national health standards.

NRDC said aging and poorly designed sewage and stormwater systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution. It said the problem was compounded by record rainfall, which added to the strain on already overloaded infrastructure.

Sewage spills and overflows caused 1,301 beach closing and advisory days in 2006, an increase of 402 days from 2005. Elevated bacteria levels from miscellaneous sources, such as boat discharges or wildlife, accounted for 410 closing and advisory days, an increase of 77 days from 2005. In addition, more than 14,000 closing and advisory days were due to unknown sources of pollution.

NRDC said that current beach water quality standards are 20 years old and rely on obsolete monitoring methods and outdated science.

The group said legislation is pending in Congress to require the use of rapid testing methods to detect contamination so that beachgoers can be notified promptly of public health risks. The bill also would double the amount of grant money available to states to $60 million per year through 2012.

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