Committee for the National Institute for the Environment

Wastewater Treatment: Overview and Background

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Courtesy of Committee for the National Institute for the Environment

Waste discharges from municipal sewage treatment plants are a significant source of water quality problems throughout the country. States report that municipal discharges are the main source of impairment to estuaries and coastal waters, the second leading source of impaired rivers and streams, and also are a major source of pollution in lakes. Pollutants associated with municipal discharges include nutrients (which can stimulate growth of algae that deplete dissolved oxygen in surface water), bacteria and other pathogens (which may impair drinking water supply and recreation uses), as well as metals and toxic chemicals from industrial and commercial activities and households.

Federal law -- the Clean Water Act -- prescribes performance levels to be attained by municipal sewage treatment plants in order to prevent the discharge of harmful quantities of waste into surface waters and to prevent contamination of sewage sludge, the major residual of the treatment process. The Act also provides financial assistance so that cities can construct treatment facilities in compliance with the law. The availability of funding for this purpose continues to be a major concern of cities and States and is a key issue for reauthorization of the Clean Water Act. This report provides background on municipal wastewater treatment issues and legislation in the 104th Congress.

Federal aid for wastewater treatment
The principal Federal program to aid municipal wastewater treatment plant construction is authorized in the Clean Water Act (CWA). Congress established this program, essentially in its current form, in the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (P.L. 92-500). Since then Congress has appropriated $65.1 billion to assist cities in complying with the Act which requires secondary treatment of municipal sewage (equivalent to removing 85 percent of raw wastes), or treatment more stringent than secondary where needed to achieve water quality standards and enable desired use of a river, stream, or lake. These provisions were intended to help achieve the overall objectives of the Act: restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters.

Title II of P.L. 92-500 authorized grants to States for wastewater treatment plant construction under a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Federal funds are provided through annual appropriations under a State-by-State allocation formula contained in the Act; the formula (which has been modified several times since 1972) is based on States' financial need for treatment plant construction and population. States used their allotments to make grants to cities to build or upgrade categories of wastewater treatment projects including treatment plants, related interceptor sewers, correction of infiltration/inflow of sewer lines, and sewer rehabilitation. Amendments enacted in 1982 (P.L.97-117) restricted the types of projects eligible for Federal funds, eliminated funds to aid growth (in order to focus funding on priority water pollution problems), and reduced the Federal share of projects costs from 75 per cent to 55 percent.

The Act, as amended in 1987 (P.L. 100-4), initiated a new grants program to support State Water Pollution Control Revolving Funds (SRFs). States continue to receive Federal grants, but now they provide a 20 percent match and use the combined funds for making loans to communities. This program, authorized in new Title VI of the Act, was phased in beginning in FY1989 and entirely replaced the previous Title II program in FY1991. Under the revolving fund concept, monies used for construction will be repaid to States to create a 'revolving' source of assistance for other communities. Federal contributions to SRFs were intended to assist in making a transition to full State and local financing by FY1995; SRFs are to be sustained through repayment of loans made from the fund after that date. The intention was that States would have greater flexibility to set priorities and administer funding in exchange for an end to Federal aid after FY1994.

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