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Editorial: Costly issue, costly remedy

When Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks says that Thomasville officials eventually will “thank us in the end” for pushing state and federal regulators to investigate a significant sewage spill into the Yadkin River and High Rock Lake, that appreciation may be a while coming. Thomasville has already been fined almost $36,000 and awaits the findings of an EPA review. It’s hard to feel grateful when you’re caught between aging water and sewer infrastructure and a shortage of funds to fix it.
But Naujoks is right: Raw-sewage spills pose a significant health hazard and point to a nationwide problem of aging water and sewer facilities. They shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed. Delays in addressing the problem not only increase the health risks but also drive up future costs, whether it’s fines from increasingly stringent state regulations or the expense of updating treatment plants and deteriorating lines.
The issue certainly isn’t limited to Thomasville. Locally, we’re seeing towns such as East Spencer and Landis struggle with the maintenance and operation of water systems. While Salisbury-Rowan Utilities has been proactive in updating plants, replacing aging pipes and building a self-sustaining revenue flow, when a system has almost 500 miles of lines and an expanding population base, maintenance and updating are endless and costly tasks.
Statewide, according to a report from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, water and sewer capital needs exceeded $6 billion for the period of 2005-2010. Over the next 25 years, it’s estimated that $16.3 billion will be needed to update and expand existing systems. Meanwhile, some traditional funding sources are drying up. Thirty years ago, federal funding accounted for 75 percent of all new water and sewer construction, according to the N.C. League of Municipalities. Now, the feds’ portion is about 5 percent, with states and municipalities providing the rest. That huge cost shift has occurred as state and local governments also face increased funding pressures for highways, prisons, schools and many other infrastructure needs.
Nationwide, the problem is even more daunting: A 2004 EPA report to Congress estimated that 850 billion gallons of storm water mixed with raw sewage pour into U.S. waters every year from outdated sewer systems. A USA Today analysis of federal records from 2003-2008 found that at least a third of the nation’s large sewage treatment systems were the subject of formal enforcement actions by the EPA or state regulators for sewage spills or other violations. The EPA estimates that as many as 5,500 people get sick every year from direct exposure to sewer overflows near beaches.
Riverkeepers and other environmental advocates perform a valuable service by highlighting spills such as the one in Thomasville and putting pressure on officials to take action. However, it’s not enough for citizens to simply demand more efficient water and sewer systems and tighter adherence to regulations. They also have to be willing to pay for it.

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