US Mayor Article

Urban Water Council Reviews Municipal Water Concerns
Mayors Discuss Pressing Infrastructure and Regulatory Issues

By Rich Anderson
July 17, 2000

Wilmington (DE) Mayor James H. Sills, Jr., chaired the Urban Water Council meeting in Seattle, Washington on June 8 prior to the Annual Conference of Mayors Meeting. Other mayors joined Mayor Sills in discussing infrastructure investment needs and identification of regulatory issues that local government is finding difficult to manage.

Frank Meilinger, director of Intergovernmental Relations for UWC Co-Chair Lynn Mayor Patrick McManus indicated that many of the water resources problems faced by local government are technical in nature, but that adequate technology exists to deal with these needs. Meilinger said that many local governments can get the technology, but paying for it was another issue. He stated that the gap in infrastructure investment for wastewater projects is roughly $34 billion annually. Lacking a strong federal funding program in this area leaves the cities responsible for raising the necessary capital for upgrades, new construction and a growing price tag for operating water facilities, according to Meilinger.

Meilinger added that local government's ability to finance infrastructure investment could be enhanced by considering public/private partnerships. He described a water project in Lynn, Massachusetts that went through a public procurement process. In choosing among competitive bids, the City of Lynn was able to reduce the overall cost for the water project by several hundred millions of dollars. Money saved on this project could finance as many as 20 new schools, and a new police station in Lynn. He went on to state that other cities could achieve similar cost savings by considering public/private partnerships, and they can protect the interests of their citizens by structuring partnerships to benefit the consumer.

Mayor Sills, Co-Chair of the Urban Water Council, pointed to the situation in his city, Wilmington, Delaware. He indicated that local government pays for 90% to 95% of all federal water mandates. The Mayor focused attention on the case of combined sewer overflows (CSO's). These CSOs are piping systems that combine sewage effluents with storm runoff. Many older urban centers have a history of sewer system development that precedes the expansion and industrialization of cities. During heavy precipitation events the older systems often become inadequate and the runoff has a tendency to overwhelm the sewerage system and results in untreated sewerage effluent overflowing the system.

The Mayor stated that over 150 million people in the U.S. rely on separated sewers, and about 42 million people in 900 communities rely on combined systems (CSOs). Some 400,000 sewer backup instances in residences occur each year, and this presents a public health threat. He also indicated that pipe blockages and pipe collapses are increasing by about 3 percent per year.

Mayor Sills indicated that there is no consensus on what to do about the CSO problem. He stated that there is not an adequate federal funding program to help local government finance improvements. He further indicated that there also is no local constituency calling on the Mayor's office to deal with the problem. Lack of a funding source and a local constituency has led to inertia.

Brookfield, (WI) Mayor Kathryn Bloomberg added that the CSO issue is complicated. Mayor Bloomberg stated that many cities with separated sewer systems are linked to regional systems that do combine runoff and sewerage effluent. The local separated sewer system may work well, but a storm event could cause overflows in the regional piping system.

Kalamazoo (MI) Mayor Robert Jones agreed that just having separated sewer systems does not eliminate the overflows and flooding problems experienced downstream. Mayor Jones stated that this is a major and growing problem. He opined that unless funding is made available to deal with this problem it would grow worse in the future.

Mayor Bloomberg suggested that the United States Conference of Mayors should do more to educate the mayors on water resources issues. She called for the Urban Water Council to sharpen its message on meeting the challenges of protecting and providing water resources. The Mayor indicated that the UWC should develop a platform of issues on wastewater, storm water management and drinking water. Mayor Jones agreed, and emphasized that requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act will become a growing challenge to local government.

Mayor Sills reminded mayors that the Urban Water Council would hold its fourth Urban Water Summit on October 5 and 6 in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida. The Mayor pointed out that part of the focus for the Summit would be on water regulations, and that senior EPA officials have been invited to discuss these issues with the Mayors. (More information can be obtained from Paulo Heyman, Urban Water Council, U.S. Conference of Mayors, 202-861-6780.)

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