Reports of America’s antiquated infrastructure are not new, but since much of the aging drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure is underground the problem remains mostly unnoticed and forgotten. As officials scramble to clean up the raw sewage and industrial waste that flooded the waterways surrounding New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we are harshly reminded of the public and environmental health threat posed by the eroding pipes and outdated systems.
“Normally, sewer overflows are just discharged into waterways and humans that generate the sewage can avoid the consequences by avoiding the water,” John Lipscomb of the clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper told the Huffington Post. ”But in this case, that waste has come back into our communities.”
Combined sewer systems are sewers that are designed to collect rainwater run-off, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. Most of the time, combined sewer systems transport all of their wastewater to a sewage treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged to a water body. During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, however, the wastewater volume in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or treatment plant. For this reason, combined sewer systems are designed to overflow occasionally and discharge excess wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies.
These overflows, called combined sewer overflows (CSOs), contain not only stormwater but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris. They are a major water pollution concern for the approximately 772 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer systems, including New York City and a number of other East Coast cities affected by Sandy.
“You can think about this like an Exxon Valdez accident,” says Lipscomb. “But instead of there being one contaminant it’s a zillion contaminants — from floatables to dissolvables to containers of contaminants — and instead of one location, there’s a zillion point sources.”
Much of the water infrastructure we rely on today was installed after World War II, although some cities have pipes in the ground dating back to the 1800s. Much of this equipment has reached the end of its useful life and needs to be repaired or replaced.
Although they are out of sight and out of mind except when they spring a leak, water and sewer systems are more vital to civilized society than any other aspect of infrastructure. “Infrastructure” refers to the pipes, treatment plants, pumps, valves, water storage tanks, hydrants, and other critical components that deliver safe drinking water to our taps, support fire and emergency services, remove wastewater from our homes and other buildings, and carry away storm water from our streets.
Without an ample supply of water, people don’t drink, toilets don’t flush, factories don’t operate, offices shut down, and fires go unchecked. When sewage systems fail, cities can’t function, and epidemics surge.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, about $9.4 billion more per year is needed for water and sewer work between now and 2020. Without that investment, many Americans should prepare for regular disruption of water service and a jump in contamination caused by sewage bacteria, the study said.
Those leaks and untreated flushes aren’t just a problem in creaking Eastern cities that date to Colonial times. Oklahoma, which didn’t become a state until the 20th century, has estimated it needs to invest $82 billion in water and sewer infrastructure during the next 50 years.
Not only do we need to invest more in our nation’s outdated infrastructure, we need to invest smarter. Simply rebuilding the dams, levees and pipes of the 19th century won’t be enough to keep up with the demands that a growing population and climate change are placing on our water systems.
Instead, we need to invest in 21st-century green infrastructure solutions, like wetland restoration and green roofs, that replicate natural functions and are cheaper, more flexible and more resilient than traditional approaches.
Replacing traditional side-walks and impervious spaces with bioswales, landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water, and rain gardens facilitates the natural replenishment of aquifers, while reducing storm-water overflows. This, in turn limits contaminants from entering into waterways and reduces electricity costs associated with pumping and treating waste and stormwater.
With the economy sputtering and Congress eager to slash a burgeoning deficit, selling Americans on the need to pay billions more in water bills or taxes to salvage a system they didn’t even know was breaking might seem impossible. But if we don’t act to allocate appropriate funding to replace outdated water and sewer systems with modern green infrastructure and low impact development, the future costs to public health, the environment, and the economy could be immense.