Beginning immediately, wastewater treatment systems with separate stormwater and sanitary sewers can look forward to being inspected every other year instead of annually. And if they've been deemed a “good actor,” inspections can be done offsite and extended to every three years.

These are just two of the significant changes to the EPA's 1989 Compliance Monitoring Strategy governing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit holders.

Instead of applying the same inspection schedule universally, the new guidelines set inspection timeframes specifically for combined sanitary and stormwater systems. They also cede considerable authority to the states, which are expected to shift resources to monitoring overflows.

“This new policy was established to allow states and EPA regions the flexibility to determine inspection frequencies based on actual water quality conditions in their geographic areas,” says spokes-woman Roxanne Smith.

It may also be a bow to reality. Over the last two years, one-fifth of the nation's 6500 permit holders haven't been inspected. And many wastewater treatment managers contend it's unrealistic for “wet weather” systems to meet goals based on the experience of systems with separate storm-water and sanitary lines.

The new guideline requires “major” combined sewer systems (i.e., those serving 75,000 or more residents) to be inspected once every three years, and “minor” systems (75,000 and fewer residents) once every five years. Operations will be evaluated based on their compliance with the nine minimum controls set out in the EPA's 1994 Combined Sewer Overflows policy statement. (Click here for a copy.)

“We recognize that achieving these frequencies may be an ambitious goal,” says the EPA's new policy. “As a result, we would expect that there will be a dialogue between regions and individual states about annual program commitments and potential resource trade-offs. Goals are a starting point for negotiations, and flexibility allows adaptation to particular situations as necessary.”

Because sanitary sewer overflows aren't permitted, inspections will be conducted as needed rather than on a schedule.

While satisfied with the new inspection strategy, states are wary. The EPA wants 285 data elements—far more than states have been collecting—and is looking to finalize the reporting requirements in a final rule, skipping the intermediate regulatory steps federal agencies normally take.

According to Association of State & Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators executive director Linda Eichmiller, there's no way states can provide that much data. The association is preparing to battle with the agency over defining exactly what states will be responsible for reporting to the EPA.

We'll keep you apprised.

Final figures

Congress greenlights 1300 Corps of Engineer projects.

The 2008 omnibus appropriations bill contains good news for some infrastructure-related programs, bad news for others.

Federal funds for sewer construction took a nosedive. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund received $689.1 million, its lowest appropriation ever and a significant drop from $1.1 billion in 2007. The drinking water fund fared only relatively better, sustaining a $8 million decrease from 2007 for a total of $829 million.

Adam Krantz, managing director for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, says the Clinton and Bush administrations intended to end federal funding of clean water programs by 2011. If current trends continue, that may happen.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on the other hand, is getting a $250 million increase over 2007 for a total of $5.6 billion. The money is earmarked for 1300 projects, including three or four big-ticket items like restoring the Everglades; smaller shoreline restoration; watershed and port dredging projects; and wastewater projects that didn't qualify for state revolving funds.

Also mitigating the state-funds crunch is an increase to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program. Although many people consider it a housing-only program for low-income communities, cities spend up to 30% of their grants on sewers and streets. They also can use grants for energy conservation.

The program is receiving $3.9 billion, up from $3.71 billion in fiscal 2007—a noteworthy bump up, considering the White House asked for $3 billion for 2008.

— Steve Barlas is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.