The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly endorsed federal help for communities faced with deteriorating sewage systems, ignoring White House warnings that the cost was too high.
The legislation, approved 367-58, would spend $1.7 billion over five years in federal grants to states and municipalities to modernize wastewater systems and control sewage overflows that pollute rivers and streams and pose health risks. Those voting against the bill, which now moves to the Senate, were all Republicans.
"No American should have to walk outside after a storm to see sewage in the streets," said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.
19th century sewage systems
Supporters cited Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the nation's wastewater infrastructure will face a funding shortfall of $300 billion to $400 billion over the next 20 years.
"We're talking about affecting the lives of over 40 million people," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., a chief sponsor of the legislation.
Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, a Republican sponsor, said many of the sewage systems in his state were built in the 19th century. In 2005, he said, there were more than 1,000 sewer overflows in the state, spilling 20 billion gallons of sewage and wastewater onto the ground and into rivers, lakes and streams.
The White House, in a statement released Tuesday, said the administration strongly opposes the bill, stating that the money approved was "unrealistic in the current fiscal environment."
It added that the bill could also encourage municipalities to delay starting sewer infrastructure projects while they wait for federal subsidies. The statement promoted an administration proposal to give exceptions to state caps on tax-exempt private activity bonds for wastewater and drinking water projects.
In a gesture to fiscal conservatives, Democrats agreed to an amendment offered by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to cut the original proposal for $1.8 billion over five years by $100 million.
Two more water bills pending this week
According to a 2004 EPA report, about 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and storm water are released every year as combined sewer overflow. There are also between 23,000 and 75,000 incidents each year of sanitary sewer overflow, releasing between 3 billion and 10 billion gallons.
Combined sewer systems collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage and industrial wastewater in one pipe. Sanitary sewer systems carry only sewage from homes and industrial and commercial wastewater.
The EPA says there are roughly 772 communities serving some 40 million people with the older and more vulnerable combined sewer systems. Most are located in the Northeast and Great Lakes areas, with some in the Pacific Northwest.
Congress in 2002 and 2003 also approved federal grants under the Clean Water Act for sewer systems, but then failed to appropriate the money in annual spending bills.
The legislation is one of three water quality bills the House is taking up this week. On Thursday it plans to revisit a defunct Clean Water Act program providing $125 million in grants for alternative water source projects. The administration also opposes this bill, saying it costs too much and is unnecessary because of other available funding sources.
On Friday it is to act on the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which would give out up to $20 billion in loans over five years for water pollution abatement projects.