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Originally published Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Guest columnist

Sewer programs must remain part of focus to protect Puget Sound and communities

Three representatives of Northwest environmental groups take issue with some who suggest diverting sewage funding to pay for stormwater projects.

Special to The Times

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THE idea that raw sewage flowing into our waterways is no big deal and not worth the expense, as implied by proponents of diverting sewage funding to pay for stormwater projects, is both misleading and damaging ["Costly sewer program may have little benefit," page one, July 30].

As leaders of three leading Northwest environmental organizations that have worked tirelessly for years to inform the public, influence policymakers and hold polluters accountable, we feel this must be challenged. These views are particularly troublesome since they come at a time when the Clean Water Act, one of our nation's most important environmental laws, is under attack in Congress.

Now is not the time to reduce funding for combined sewer overflow (CSO) control programs — it's time to defend local clean-water programs because of the enormous benefits they provide. The fact is that CSOs and stormwater are inextricably tied, in every way except their funding sources, as King County Councilmember Larry Phillips rightly observes. However, both pollution sources need to be addressed in order to clean up Puget Sound.

"Green" infrastructure solutions that can tackle both problems are effective, affordable and gaining traction. Many actually save money by reducing expensive engineered infrastructure, and provide other benefits — such as flood control and increased green space. The Pacific Northwest is indeed a leader in these innovative solutions.

Here's what a typical CSO event looks like: Whenever it rains more than a trace amount, sewage mixed with industrial wastewater and stormwater flows directly into our lakes, rivers and Sound. Over a year, this amounts to about a billion gallons of toxic material, human waste and other chemicals entering our waters, untreated. If cities and counties actually scaled back their CSO control programs, as the proponents suggest, we would never achieve a clean Puget Sound.

It is also important to consider the citizens' perspective, especially those who are most at risk. Communities such as Ballard, Fremont, South Park, Georgetown, Leschi and Seward Park receive most of the CSO wastewater in Seattle and these discharges threaten the health of anyone who visits these waters, as well as wildlife such as salmon, herons, osprey and eagles.

CSOs are not a made-up villain — they are incredibly damaging, especially on a local level. These sewer overflows close more beaches to swimming or recreation than any other source. They routinely close shellfish beds and contaminate sediments with highly toxic material around the point of discharge.

For example, CSOs recontaminated two Duwamish River early-action cleanup sites with industrial chemicals within just one year. If this pollution source is not dealt with effectively and soon, it will put the success of the whole Duwamish River Superfund Cleanup in jeopardy.

These CSO reduction projects are not optional, they are necessary to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Prior to the act's passage in 1972, our nation's waters routinely were dumping grounds for enormous amounts of highly toxic chemicals and untreated sewage. It is work under this law that has directed the cleanup of many of our worst sources of pollution, bringing many of our waters back to life.

We must continue to fight for a comprehensive strategy and secure funding sources to control our wastewater, stormwater and ultimately recover Puget Sound. This takes time, investment and commitment. But the rewards are great and the consequences of failure would be disastrous. If we're serious about cleaning up Puget Sound, it's time to get to work.

Chris Wilke, Tom Bancroft and James Rasmussen are executive directors of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, People For Puget Sound and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, respectively.

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