NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Sewage Treatment Upgrades: Who Pays?

October 29, 2003

Sewage treatment systems in some 770 cities are outdated. Many were built more than a century ago and need costly upgrades to meet federal clean-water standards. But the federal money available for such updates is a fraction of what it was a generation ago.

The problem is that these cities' systems blend sewage from homes and businesses with runoff from streets, roofs and parking lots when it rains. For generations, these cities dumped untreated waste into rivers and streams whenever heavy rainfall overwhelmed the systems' ability to carry the load to treatment plants.

Cities that built separate systems for sewage and storm water in the first place also must meet the standards of the law and subsequent amendments. But the rules hit particularly hard at cities and suburbs that have combined systems. Those communities are left with two options:

  • They could build separate systems for sewage and storm runoff, which would mean huge disruptions and costs.
  • Or they could build massive underground tanks to hold the combined flows during storms; after the storm, the wastewater could be pumped to treatment plants and released into rivers.

Most cities have picked the second option.

The federal government once paid 75 to 95 percent of the cost of such projects, industry experts say. That share has dropped to about 5 percent. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the cost of clean-water improvements from 2000 to 2019 will be $388 billion more than federal money currently planned.

But there is little movement in Congress to finance major clean water initiatives at a time when the federal budget deficit is at record levels. More than likely, the costs will be shifted directly to residents through higher sewage bills.

Source: Larry Copeland, "Sewer overhauls drive fee hikes Paying for upgrades is a challenge," USA Today, October 27, 2003.


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