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Commentary...The Feds Refuse To Pay...Walter Smith

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There’s been some progress recently in the long struggle to clean up the region’s waterways, but as commentator Walter Smith notes, it’s been tempered by some not so encouraging developments.

Smith is the Executive Director of D.C. Appleseed. What do you think? Tell us at conversation.wamu.org
Click on “Commentary Forum”.

The good news is that the federal government has just made major new commitments to restoring our region’s waterways. For example, Federal agencies have recently agreed to enforce strict new rules for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and have crafted an ambitious recovery plan for the Anacostia River.

Yet, carrying this out won’t be easy. One challenging part of the plan involves a $2.4 billion infrastructure project to dramatically alter the way the District handles storm water.

Right now, storm water that runs off roofs, roads, and parking lots carries trash and chemicals into the city’s sewers. But during heavy storms, parts of the District’s sewer system get overwhelmed. Street runoff mixes with raw sewage and pours directly into the Anacostia, the Potomac, and Rock Creek.

This serious problem can be fixed. In fact, it must be fixed in order for the District to meet Federal Clean Water Act requirements. And to its credit, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has developed an equitable fee to help cover the costs of federally-mandated sewer upgrades.

As a result, all D.C. residents, businesses, and landholders, including the federal government, are now being charged a storm sewer fee based on how much water runs off of their property and into the storm sewer system. All of this is the good news.

Now for the bad news: the same federal government that ordered the District to drastically cut water pollution is refusing to pay its fair share to help reduce the harmful impact of its own storm water.

This may be just a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, but last month The Government Accountability Office told federal agencies to ignore D.C. WASA’s new storm sewer fee. GAO’s determination took no account of the federal government’s commitment to cleaning up our waterways. It ignored Clean Water Act language authorizing the federal government to pay “reasonable service charges” for activities resulting in the discharge of runoff pollutants. Worse, GAO seemed oblivious to the fact that the federal government is the largest single user of the District’s storm water system. This refusal by the government to pay its fair share will create a $500 million shortfall in the clean-up effort.

GAO’s action, if upheld, means funding the improvements required to meet federal Clean Water Act standards will fall squarely on the backs of D.C. businesses and residents. It is difficult to see how D.C.’s non-federal ratepayers could possibly carry that burden alone. The fee would have to increase 13-fold over the next decade in order to meet federally-mandated deadlines.

We think GAO’s decision needs to be reversed. The federal government should not ignore its responsibility to help clean up the waterways it played a role in degrading. Right now, District businesses and residents are doing their part to fix the problem. It is time the biggest user of the storm sewer system, the federal government, stepped up and paid its fair share.

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