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Even After Rate Hikes, San Diego's Water Woes to Continue

Next month, San Diegans will receive bigger water bills, and the rates will continue to grow over the next four years. The city will use the additional revenue to pay for a backlog of sewer system upg

Next month, San Diegans will receive bigger water bills, and the rates will continue to grow over the next four years. The city will use the additional revenue to pay for a backlog of sewer system upgrades. But it's unclear whether the money will be enough. As Eric Niiler reports from Washington, the federal government has recognized that cities like San Diego need help, but officials can't agree on a way forward. 

In the last decade, San Diego has raised its water rates ten times. Yet the price hikes can hardly keep up with the need to fix decaying pipes. Although the city has dramatically reduced the number of sewer pills over the past five years, dozens of beaches were closed due to contamination last year. City officials believe sewage was the cause. Bob Ferrier is San Diego's deputy wastewater administrator.

Ferrier: Some of the pipes are old concrete pipes for example. They've been under the ground for 60-70 years, so we have problems with water infiltration and root intrusion that sort of things.

The federal government has ordered San Diego to reduce its sewage spills. And the city needs more than $500 million to replace aging sewers. That doesn't include potential investment in the wastewater treatment plant at Point Loma.

The plant takes in millions of gallons of waste water daily. Its filtration process does not meet Clean Water Act requirements. The federal government exempts the Point Loma plant from the regulations, because it discharges treated water into the deep ocean. The exemption expires next year. If the city fails to renew the waiver, it has to come up with more than $1 billion for upgrades. Bob Ferrier says that's just one among many unfunded mandates.

Ferrier: You got the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. The state has the Porter Clone Act. In many cases, there's no companion funding for those regulations.

San Diego isn't the only city scrambling to meet federal mandates. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that wastewater system upgrades across the nation will cost $400 billion over the next 20 years. Many believe municipalities cannot afford the expense without federal assistance.

Jessica Roach is with the Food and Water Watch , a Washington based consumer group. She says the federal government should set up a water trust fund.

Roach: We have a trust fund for highways. We have a trust fund for airports. There's even a trust fund for the national botanic garden. So why not water?

Roach suggests that the federal government collect fees from companies that pollute, and distribute revenues to cities. The Bush Administration, however, is skeptical of such a plan. Ben Grumbles is Assistant Administrator for water at the EPA.

Grumbles: The closer the fund is to the actual neighborhoods and communities that are being served by the fund, the better. A new national trust fund-there is a lot of questions surrounding that, because it could lead to a federalized approach.

Instead, the EPA urges cities to partner with private companies. The partnership would go like this. The city of San Diego would borrow money on behalf of a private company. The company would use the borrowed money to upgrade the Point Loma plant. Then it would use revenues generated from the plant to pay the debts. Because the city can issue tax-free bonds, the private company can benefit from cheaper debts.

San Diego Democratic Congressman Bob Filner says such a proposal shows the Bush administration's priorities. 

Filner: The White House has been trying to privatize the whole United States, whether it's social security, or Medicare or air traffic control or education.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said in his State of the City address this year that he is considering having private companies run the wastewater system. Filner warns against that idea.

Filner: Privatization is eared at profit, and when you are dealing with a public service, you can't have an agency that's trying to make profits, because it will cut corners. It will not serve those who are hard to serve or probably poorer than the average.

Imperial Beach Republican Brian Bilbray says Filner is overreacting.

Bilbray: The sewage treatment plants were built by private companies. The difference now is that instead of having federal employees operate the sewage treatment plant, you have a private company operate that. So it shouldn't be any big shock.

Bilbray says private companies can be more efficient and less bureaucratic.

Mayor Sanders says privatization will not happen in the next year, because he says it's a huge undertaking.

Supporters of federal funding are urging Congress to set up a Trust Fund for water by October this year, when the Clean Water Act reaches its 35 th anniversary.

From Capitol Hill, Eric Niiler KPBS News.