No free money

October 12, 2003

FEDERAL GRANTS of up to $500,000 each have been set aside to help seven towns on the Eastern Shore upgrade their sewage treatment systems to reduce pollutants going into the Chesapeake Bay. Harford County is penciled in for $1 million from the feds to replace failing septic systems in Joppa. Another $400,000 is earmarked for Prince George's and Montgomery county sewage systems.

But as Baltimore Public Works Director George L. Winfield put it, there is "no free money" currently headed for the city to relieve the burden on utility customers for financing a $900 million overhaul of aging pipes to stop raw sewage from overflowing into nearby rivers and streams.

Maryland's congressional delegation came through with $3.6 million last year for the city system, which also serves parts of three metropolitan counties. Additional federal dollars may follow before the project is finished in a dozen or so years. Baltimore may also get federally financed low-interest loans through the state. But for now, the free-money well is dry.

Thus, the city has warned utility customers, who saw their water and sewer rates rise by 9 percent this year, to get used to it. Baltimore sewer rates are expected to rise every year for at least the next three or four.

What the city didn't say in notices sent out to rate-payers this month is that the rehabilitation project being conducted as a result of a court-enforced agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency is only phase one. Upgrading the quality of the city's sewage treatment system to ensure that its discharge into local waterways is as clean as possible will require many millions more - much of it from customers.

And unfortunately, that's as it should be. With the health of the Chesapeake Bay so badly degraded by algae-feeding nitrogen - coming in part from outmoded sewage systems - the $500 million to $1 billion it will take to upgrade the 66 major treatment plants in Maryland is money well spent by local residents.

But the upgrades of both plants and pipes will be done faster - and the bay's recovery accelerated - if the feds put a higher priority on helping out.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hopes to persuade the Bush administration and his former colleagues in the Republican-led Congress to make a major contribution. So far, he's gotten no long-term commitments. The money is coming in dribs and drabs, muscled through mostly by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, senior Democrats who serve on the Senate and House appropriations committees.

Of course, the competition is fierce. The government is running huge deficits, is fighting a war on terrorism and has all but adopted Iraq. Perhaps the lobbying would be easier if sewage plant upgrades were designated vital to homeland security. That would be fair - because they are.

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