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Unfiltered water at the Louisville Senior Citizens Housing Center.
Unfiltered water at the Louisville Senior Citizens Housing Center.

Federal budget has communities worried about clean water

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Advocates for clean water are concerned about proposed Congressional spending cuts. The program that helps communities afford expensive water and sewer projects is expected to be cut in half. Julie Grant reports many local governments won't be able to afford them.

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The senior center has an extensive, and expensive, filtering system.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

When Ernie Runions took the job as maintenance manager at the Louisville Senior Citizens Housing Center, he didn’t realize how much time he’d be spending in this small room. The water room. It’s filled with water tanks and filters. Runions says the equipment cost about 25-thousand dollars, and the price tag keeps rising:

"It’s in terrible shape. It keeps falling apart. Every time we fix it, it’s 5-thousand dollars, 3-thousand dollars.  This place is right in the hole because of that."

Engineer Tim Burley has been helping Louisville with its water system. He fills a bucket with the nursing home’s water  – before it’s gone through the extensive filtering….

"There you go," Burley says. "That’s your raw water."

The water smells like eggs and iron. It’s got a blackish tint, and black particles float in it. 

Ernie Runions says even after the filtering, the elderly residents don’t want to drink it.  It’s high in sodium, which can be bad for their health.  And it smells like chlorine, which Runions uses to kill bacteria:

"Sometimes they wake up and they’re angry in the morning, they just want to take a shower.  They say the chlorine is making me itch, all the extra chlorine.  I’ve got red blotches all over my body, and my doctor says it’s the chlorine from the building."

Louisville leaders say that until a few years ago, everyone used well water.  And most people had some kind of problem with it. Nearly half the wells tested had coliform bacteria contamination – some suspected sewage was seeping into the wells.

Residents wanted to build a municipal water system, so they didn’t have to rely on well water. But that’s a multi-million dollar endeavor. With fewer than 2000 households to share the cost, this small town couldn’t afford to build a new system without some help.

Communities all over the country have problems like this with drinking and waste water projects.

Andy Buchsbaum is a director at the National Wildlife Federation.

He says water and sewer districts make some money by charging for their services:

"But the level of spending that’s needed here to improve sewage infrastructure is so great that individuals and businesses in these municipalities can’t possibly shoulder the burden themselves. They need help from the state, they need help from the feds. And state revolving loan fund is the primary vehicle for getting that help."

The state revolving loan fund is a federal program. It gives money to states to provide zero-or-low interest loans to local governments for water and sewer projects. There’s stiff competition to get the assistance. 

In New York, the department of health has nearly $40 billion in requests for drinking water systems alone.  95% of them won’t get the assistance.

Another revolving loan fund also helps communities with waste water projects.

When there’s a big storm, many older sewer systems can’t handle all the water. So raw sewage can overflows into rivers and streams. 

Buchsbaum  says the need to upgrade and build new sewers is growing. But Congress has proposed cutting the state revolving loan program in half. 

"The last significant investment that was made in this country was over forty years ago, and sewage pipes just don’t last that long. So we need to really make a lot more spending on sewage capacity. Instead we’re spending less – and a lot less. And what that slash means is that we’re going to see literally hundreds of gallons of raw sewage spilling into our lakes and streams."

Some water industry experts say funding for sewer and drinking water projects got a big boost under the 2009 federal stimulus package. The cuts proposed now in Congress would reduce the state revolving loan fund back to pre-stimulus levels. But they say, even at the highest investment, there wasn’t near enough money to meet community needs.

Louisville has completed 2 of 5 phases in its long term plan to bring municipal water to its districts. It hopes to start the third phase by the end of 2012.

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