Monday, June 7, 2010

Safe water bond is a good deal

In my job as director of Maine’s public health agency, we work to protect public health for all Maine people. An important part of our core mission for the last 100 years is to ensure that Maine’s drinking water is safe and reliable. However, Maine’s drinking water infrastructure, like that found in most other states, is old and in need of repair and replacement.

In the beginning of May, I watched in awe as Boston’s drinking water operators spent days and nights working to repair a pipe break on a large water transmission line that serves 30 communities surrounding Boston. Because of the potential for contamination, more than 2 million people, including 700,000 households, had to boil their water or use bottled water for three days while the pipe was being repaired. This interruption in service caused great disruption and costs to families, businesses and workers and illustrates the need to maintain our water infrastructure.

On June 8, Question 5 asks whether you favor a $10.25 million state bond that will match $33.25 million in federal funds designated for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects, and agriculture irrigation projects.

If the question passes, $3.4 million of the $10.25 million will be used for drinking water infrastructure projects that will receive a match of $17 million in federal funds. For the 2010 construction season, we have received more than $42 million in drinking water funding requests. Public water systems that have requested funding to improve water treatment or upgrade existing facilities include Bangor, Eastport, Vinalhaven, Mechanic Falls, Bath, Hampden, Gardiner, Old Town, Caribou, Portland and Auburn-Lewiston. Without the state match, these projects will not be funded this year.

For every $1 the state invests, the federal government provides $5. The state must provide the state match in order to receive the federal funds. If the state cannot provide matching funds within two years, Maine’s federal funds are forfeited to other states.

Since 1997, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Drinking Water Program has administered the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund that provides low-interest loans and grants to public water systems. The fund serves systems statewide and operates in conjunction with the Maine Municipal Bond Bank. Re-payment of principal and interest on the loans, combined with the state matching funds and federal funds, is put back into the fund so that new loans can be made.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that Maine’s drinking water infrastructure need over the next 20 years is $900 million, or an average of $45 million per year.

The fund is a notably successful program. Since 1997, we have lent or granted more than $150 million to our public water systems so that they can continue to provide safe and reliable drinking water to people in Maine. These investments also provide well-paying jobs for Maine workers and businesses through the construction, maintenance and operation of these facilities.

Maintenance of our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure does have a cost; however, this is a good deal for Maine people even in these tough economic times. We must continue to make the investment necessary to maintain reliable and safe water for the state of Maine.

Dora Anne Mills is director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the state’s chief health officer.

Originally printed in the Bangor Daily News.

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