As deadline nears for cleaning Sound, added funding unlikely to be enough

When this legislative session comes to an end, Connecticut’s Clean Water Fund could be among the few winners – on track right now to gain a net $15 million in state bond funding.

But with a federal deadline to clean up the amount of nitrogen discharged into Long Island Sound only a few years away and about $5 billion in work left to do on sewage treatment upgrades and other projects to accomplish that, the overall bonding level still means the state is not likely to meet the deadline.

It also means many cities and towns could end up in violation of the Clean Water Act, leaving them vulnerable to lawsuits and costly fines.

“We know it’s on the cliff, ready to fall off the cliff,” said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “But we’re only putting a tether on it.”

Save the Sound is part of an unlikely coalition that has brought together environmental advocates, municipalities, construction unions, engineers, tourism officials and the fishing industry. Known as the Clean Water Investment Coalition, members have been pushing for extra funding for fiscal year 2011, arguing that in addition to meeting clean water goals, the projects would create jobs and generate income for the state.

Construction officials said it would help their industry, which has been hurt in the economic downturn as major projects have been put on hold.

The low oxygen levels in the Sound, known as hypoxia, have worsened in the last few years–largely due to weather conditions, but nitrogen discharge continues to be a major factor. Schmalz said around Bridgeport, for instance, the poor water condition has meant that shellfish can’t be taken on about half the days when harvesting would otherwise be allowed. Cleaner water, she said, would benefit shellfishermen as well as the tourism industry.

The additional $15 million is far less than the $120 million the coalition had requested. And given the amount of time it takes to plan and build the projects, Schmalz and others said even that request wouldn’t have put the state a pace to make the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s order to reduce nitrogen discharge into the Sound by nearly 60 percent by 2014.

“If we wait to fund the beginnings of these projects we’re going to be up against the wall by the time they actually get started,” Schmalz said.

It’s not that the state has been completely remiss. For many years Connecticut was viewed as a model. In addition to general obligation and revenue bond funds, action included a nitrogen-trading program in which communities that had reduced the nitrogen output from their sewage treatment facilities could sell credits to those that had yet to do upgrades

But a funding lapse for five years beginning in 2003 resulted in a backlog of dozens of nitrogen reduction projects. In 2008, more communities needed to buy nitrogen credits than had them to sell and the state missed its target.

A lack of funds also hampered huge projects in the state’s three largest cities – Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. Those cities still have old systems that, in heavy storms, combine rainwater runoff with sewage and dump it untreated into the nearest body of water. That amounts to the release of about 2 billion gallons of raw sewage a year, which also adds to the nitrogen problem.

For fiscal years 2008-2009, even $595 million from the state plus $48.5 million in stimulus funds from the federal government that was leveraged into $85 million, didn’t come close to eliminating the backlog.

With the economic downturn and years of huge state deficits projected, the legislature reduced Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s biennial bonding request last year, including Clean Water projects. It eventually appropriated $65 million in general obligation bonds, which are essentially grants, and $80 million in revenue bonds, which act as low interest loans, for fiscal year 2010 and $40 million in general obligation bonds and $80 million in revenue bonds for fiscal year 2011. It appears that $25 million in general obligation bonds will be cut this year, but $40 million in revenue bonds added next year.

The list of shovel-ready projects requesting funding this year runs eight-and-a-half pages. Only a handful will be selected when the Department of Environmental Protection releases its priority project list once the revised funding is determined.

“They’re all just kind of holding their breath and crossing their fingers,” said Kachina Walsh-Weaver, senior legislative associate for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, part of the coalition.

Walsh-Weaver and others said not making the priority list leaves many communities with choice of bad options.

“I don’t think communities have a lot of wiggle room,” said Stamford Water Pollution Control Authority Executive Director Jeanette Brown. Stamford completed a $102 million sewer treatment upgrade in 2006. “It’s either do it, pay it on your own, or pay the fines.”

Compounding the problem is an anticipated new requirement from the E.P.A. that lowers allowable phosphorus levels, which means even more upgrades. Glastonbury is just about to complete a 30-month $30 million sewage treatment upgrade it began even though state funding was not assured.

“There were some tense moments,” said Michael Bisi, superintendent of sanitation who said most of the needed funding eventually came through. “I can’t believe that I can go back to our town council and sewer commissioner after we just finished this and say, ‘Now we need I don’t know how much for phosphorus.’ It’s like you’ll get driven out of town.”

Coalition members also worry that given the complex formulas used to trigger federal funds for clean water projects, the low bond levels may make some potential federal funds unavailable and mean some of the most important projects won’t be done.

“Our responsibility is to spend money that is authorized, and try to make progress. We need to work with what we’ve got,” said Betsy Wingfield, bureau chief of the Department of Environmental Protection’s bureau of water protection and land reuse. “Can I tell you the DEP is going to do it’s best to meet the goals with whatever funds we have? Absolutely.”

She was only slightly more optimistic than the department’s 2008 nitrogen report, which said the 2014 nitrogen levels “may not be met.”

“It is possible we will make 2014,” Wingfield said.

And if not?

“The whole point of the citizen’s suit provision of the Clean Water Act is to make sure there is someone who’s watchdogging and making people comply when potentially their own state government isn’t,” said Schmalz of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment..

“We’ve done it in the past,” she said of suing. “And we would do it again if that’s what the situation requires.”