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Spending plan for Iraq is a touchy issue in U.S.

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's proposal to spend more than $20 billion on reconstruction for Iraq and Afghanistan while there are so many needs at home is becoming a lightning-rod issue.

America's infrastructure — water and sewer systems, power grids, roads, schools and airports — is in such poor shape that it needs an additional $1.6 trillion in repairs over the next five years, according to a report this month from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency says local water and sewer agencies need an extra $535 billion over the next 20 years to keep waterways from growing more polluted.

Each year, more than 1 trillion gallons of raw sewage escapes aging treatment plants and pollutes U.S. waters. Millions of gallons of raw sewage flowed into America's lakes, rivers and bays during September's Hurricane Isabel and August's electrical blackout.

But the Bush administration proposes to spend $3.7 billion in taxpayers' money to rebuild Iraq's water and sewer systems, vs. $1.8 billion on the EPA programs that help upgrade local U.S. water and sewer systems, the main federal programs devoted to this purpose.

"It is mind-boggling that the president can recognize the importance of water infrastructure needs in Iraq but is blind to our needs here at home," said Sen. James Jeffords, a Vermont independent who's on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "As recent events have shown, we cannot keep ignoring our water needs. Unfortunately, this administration's concern for clean water is murky at best."

A top Republican has similar concerns.

"If we can spend $1 billion a week in Iraq, we should be doing the same type of things in this country," said John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., the chairman of the House of Representatives Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.

To be sure, in America most spending on water and sewer systems comes from local taxes, but the federal government has always played a role, and a larger one in years past: In 1980 Washington spent $9.7 billion on those systems, equivalent to $21.7 billion in today's dollars.

Moreover, state and local governments are cash-strapped today after the bust of the late '90s high-tech boom and the economic slowdown that followed, and if the growing need is to be met, many experts think more federal money will be necessary.

Local water and sewer problems will only get worse because the population is growing, requirements for clean water are becoming more stringent and the systems are aging, said Steve Allbe, the EPA official who wrote last year's 54-page report showing a dramatic need for increased spending.

But the amount of assistance the EPA provided to help build water and sewer projects dropped from $2.6 billion in 2001 to $2.2 billion in the budget year that ends Tuesday.

Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said it was unfair to compare one-time help for Iraq to longtime federal aid for U.S. water and sewer systems, which totals trillions of dollars over time.

"The Iraq costs are one-time shots in the arm," Duffy said. "There is no comparison. You can't compare one-time (spending) with recurring costs."

Moreover, Duffy argued, on balance the Bush administration does spend more on American water and sewer programs than on Iraqi systems, because other federal money helps in addition to EPA water and sewer grants. Duffy cited $1.7 billion in proposed water supply spending by the Agriculture and Interior departments.

In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers spends $4 billion, much of it on flood control.

But that spending isn't equivalent to rebuilding water and sewer systems, either in America or Iraq, and is peripheral to the real U.S. problem, said Ken Kirk, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, the lobby for U.S. sewer agencies.

Kirk agreed that America needs to rebuild Iraq but said that didn't excuse neglecting problems at home.

"They have critical needs over there, but at the same time we have critical needs over here," he said. "If you're going to make an investment in Iraqi infrastructure, then you should make similar investments in U.S. water resources."

A majority of ordinary Americans feel similarly, judging by recent polls. Some 59 percent oppose the president's request of $87 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a Pew Research Center poll.