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Source: Environment and Energy Daily

WATER: Funding remains primary roadblock to Long Island Sound cleanup, local officials say

BY TARYN LUNTZ

Posted: October 8, 2009
Originally Published: October 7, 2009

Officials working to clean up and restore Long Island Sound told a House panel yesterday that they are hampered by tight federal purse strings and the piecemeal nature of congressional funding.

"Some members of Congress have asked: 'Why haven't you done better in restoring the sound?'" Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, told a House Transportation and Infrastructure panel. "I say give us more, you'll get more. That is the truth."

The Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing was designed to determine how to improve programs to restore the estuary as lawmakers prepare to reauthorize the Long Island Sound Study, a U.S. EPA-funded and administered program that coordinates restoration efforts among the federal government, Connecticut, New York and area stakeholders.

But area officials said their primary request is that Congress fund existing Long Island Sound programs.

Lawmakers in 2000 authorized $40 million annually to help distressed local communities repair sewage treatment plants to decrease nitrogen levels in the water -- one of the main threats to Long Island Sound. Congress authorized an additional $25 million a year in 2006 for habitat protection and other goals.

But the programs have seen only a fraction of that money in congressional spending bills, garnering just $2.2 million in 2006, $2.7 million in 2007 and $5.5 million in 2008.

"To date, the states have had only limited success in securing the federal appropriations, which could be of significant benefit in funding the sewage treatment plant upgrades needed to protect Long Island Sound's water quality and natural resources," said Peter Scully, regional director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. "U.S. EPA has only included modest amounts in its budget request, which, in our view, do not reflect the intent of Congress." Piecemeal annual funding also poses a barrier to enacting long-term, comprehensive programs, Esposito said.

"The uncertainty from year to year of federal funding for Long Island Sound projects provides a burdensome roadblock to long-term projects from advancing in any meaningful way," Esposito said. The programs need three- to five-year blocks of funding to operate effectively, she said. Subcommittee ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) expressed sympathy for local officials' funding frustrations but warned the situation is not likely to improve in a difficult national economic climate.

"I'll be honest, money is a challenge for you, but it is here also," Boozman said. "I think that probably the reality is that that's going to continue to be the case."

Expanding the effort State officials said there are some measures that could aid them in their restoration efforts, including bringing the watershed states of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts into the effort.

While those states do not border Long Island Sound, their pollution runs into the estuary. "I think it's about time that those states step up and join the party," said Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound at the Connecticut Fund of the Environment. Mark Tedesco, director of U.S. EPA's Long Island Sound office, said agency staff in all three states are working to reduce pollution in the Connecticut River, which runs into the sound. But he said it will be challenging to get the states to participate in the Long Island Sound program. "There are going to be some tough decisions ahead," Tedesco said. "They need to be incorporated into a comprehensive program. At the same time, they have a host of other water quality needs -- their own coastal water, their own drinking water."

Tedesco said there are opportunities to expand Connecticut's nitrogen credit exchange program to incorporate all of the watershed states.

Under that program, which began in 2002, publicly owned water treatment facilities can trade nitrogen credits to achieve their mandated reduction goals. Connecticut officials estimate the program has saved treatment facilities a total of as much as $400 million.

Incorporating the outer watershed states in the trading program would "allow them to be partners, but in a way that makes economic and environmental sense," Tedesco said