<P>When Less <I>Is </I>Less</P>

Depending on how you look at the Bush Adminstration's proposed cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 2006 budget, you could call them either legitimate belt tightening or calculated noose tightening. The administration has proposed reducing the agency's budget in 2006 to $7.57 billion. Total EPA funding would decline from $8 billion in the 2005 budget year and $8.4 billion in the 2004 budget year.

The main reduction in the proposed 2006 budget, which was unveiled on February 7, 2005, is due to a funding cut for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), a federal program that provides long-term, low-interest loans to states for wastewater treatment plant construction and upgrades. The proposed budget cuts 2006 funding for CWSRF to $730 million, which represents a $361 million cut in the program's funding compared to the $1.09 billion funding level in 2005. Moreover, this year's proposed level for the CWSRF is $612 million less than the amount enacted two years ago ($1.34 billion) in the 2004 fiscal budget. The summary of EPA's 2006 budget is available online at www.epa.gov/budget/index.htm.

Proponents of the plan say the cuts are necessary due to the fact that the White House is facing a record budget deficit. Acting EPA Administrator Steve Johnson defended the proposed budget as "a strong request that allows us to keep up the pace of environmental protections" and said that the cuts were part of the administration's larger deficit-cutting plan.

Johnson said the proposal maintains EPA's "core work" of protecting various environmental initiatives, but he acknowledged the difficulties as the administration seeks to balance environmental spending with other federal spending needs, including homeland security.

"Obviously, we're in a fiscally restrained budget," Johnson said, but he insists that the $730 million proposed in fiscal 2006 for CWSRF maintains the Bush administration's commitment to providing a total of $6.8 billion in capitalization by 2011, which would spin off about $3.4 billion per year in revolving funds to the states."

In addition to those federal monies (to CWSRF), states, local communities, rate payers, and additional voluntary (clean water) programs" provide additional resources to ensure clean water in communities, Johnson said.

The Bush administration has long held that state revolving fund needs are not solely the responsibility of the federal government, but that actions on the part of the local governments are also required to help pay for the repairing and upgrading of aging U.S. wastewater treatment infrastructure.

The proposed cut to the CWSRF program has come under fire from several opponents to the White House's proposed budget.

"President Bush claims to support state and local initiatives but his new budget leaves communities high and dry in addressing their clean water needs," said Wesley Warren, deputy director of Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) Advocacy Center. "With 45 percent of the nation's assessed waters unable to meet federal standards, America deserves more clean water funding, not less."

Studies by EPA, the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, and the Water Infrastructure Network estimate a water infrastructure funding gap exceeding $300 billion over the next 20 years. Given this mounting funding gap, the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA) (www.amsa-cleanwater.org) is urging Congress to support both full funding for the CWSRF in the short term and to establish a dedicated trust fund -- similar to the trust funds for highway and airport infrastructure -- to guarantee clean and safe water in the United States for the long term.

According to NRDC, the dramatic decrease in clean water funding could lead to more sewer overflows, beach closures, and disease outbreaks across the country. NRDC collaborated with several other groups in the preparation of a report entitled "All Dried Up: How Clean Water Is Threatened by Budget Cuts," which was released in September 2004. To access the report go to www.nrdc.org/media/docs/040915.pdf.

Congress will debate and revise the White House budget proposal over the next few months before coming up with a budget for fiscal 2006, which begins on October 1, 2005. U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that he was "troubled" by cuts aimed at CWSRF. However, Inhofe predicted Congress would restore at least part of the EPA funding later this year and would add other earmarks, which are likely to boost overall environmental funding.

The administration's proposed cuts to CWSRF funding need to be reconsidered. Clean water is an essential part of environmental health. Additionally, water quality is vital for public health and economic growth in the United States. In order to promote clean water in our country, it is crucial that the federal government maintain a long-term, adequate amount of federal funding to take care of the current water infrastructure needs of our citizens, as well as those of future generations.

This editorial originally appeared in the April 2005 issue Environmental Protection, Vol. 16, No. 3.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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