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Commentary: D.C. Shouldn't Shoulder The Burden Of Cleaner Water Alone

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Carol O'Cleireacain, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Right now, when a big rainstorm hits D.C., the sewer system is overwhelmed, and raw sewage flows right into our waterways and then on to the Chesapeake Bay. Older parts of the city have pipes carrying both storm water and sewage — a legacy of the federal government, which ran the system until the 1970s.

Under a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, D.C. Water has begun the Clean Rivers Project, building huge underground tunnels to store the storm water and raw sewage until it can be sent for treatment. The project will cost $2.6 billion through 2025 and will virtually eliminate sewage discharge into Rock Creek and the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.

No one can doubt how important this is, or how much cleaner water benefits the city and the entire region. The question is, can we create a fair and efficient way to pay for it? DC Water is financing the project through long-term bonds, which are paid back from fees customers will have to pay. The federal government has supported the project, but future contributions are not predictable.

Even with D.C. Water's smart management, the financing of this project raises some concerns.

The present approach puts the burden on District residents and property owners. Loading all of the costs on them could be risky. Projections show water and sewer bills will increase sharply. They will grow much faster than income; and, for the District s poorest residents, more than double as a share of their income.

We need, instead, to get all those who benefit from the region's cleaner water to pay a fair share. That includes the suburbs and the federal government. Quite simply, the current, fragmented, efforts do not match the scale of the problem.

We need DC Water and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to bring together the federal government, the District, the states of Maryland and Virginia and their local jurisdictions to sort out a more rational system to pay for improved water quality. No one wants the Chesapeake Bay clean-up to fail.

Carol O'Cleireacain is the author of a new Brookings Institution report about DC Water. Her commentary came to us through WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories. Learn more about the Public Insight Network, and contribute your own commentary.

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