Lurking in Your Sewers: Public Health Risks & Unfunded Mandates

By: Bill Eller July 17, 2019


Do you know what’s lurking in your sewers?

If you’re a public official, you probably have a better idea than most, and it’s not pretty. Our country’s aging infrastructure is reaching the end of its useable life span, and federal funding to repair and replace sewer systems has been on a downward trend for decades.

The financial headache is likely to get worse, as 56 million more Americans will connect to sewer plants by 2032, a 23 percent increase. To meet this increase, an estimated 532 new treatment systems will need to be constructed. Adding to utilities’ and municipalities’ financial woes is the unfunded mandate to separate stormwater sewers. In a recent study, 65 percent reported a lack of funding as a significant challenge to completing this work. The same study found the funding gap is $7.5 billion annually.

As weather events increase, many areas have been hit with heavy rains that cause combined sewer overflows (CSO). As a result, many systems are grappling with larger-than-normal discharges into local bodies of water. For example, from 2017 to 2018, the amount of untreated sewage discharged into the Merrimack River doubled to 800 million gallons. In North Texas, 119 million gallons of overflow discharge was released to the dismay of operators, residents and environmental scientists in 2018. When Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, flooding and power outages caused discharges in streets and homes.

Effluent in the water – many times the same source from which a community’s drinking water is drawn – is a public health hazard. Those exposed can develop noroviruses, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and the water can contain bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and giardia. Sewage also can cause harmful algae blooms, which are actually a type of toxic bacteria.

When the system is overwhelmed, sewer mains can back up into residences and flood wastewater treatment plants. The burden and blame fall primarily on local leaders when CSO is really a symptom of a much larger problem: our aging infrastructure.

Without an influx of federal or state dollars, cities and utilities will have to get creative with financing to separate grey systems. Some municipalities are incorporating a stormwater utility charge on water and sewer bills to fund a utility specifically to maintain storm sewers.

iStock-182384774In addition, CSO can be mitigated with green infrastructure, by incorporating permeable pavement and sidewalks, rain gardens and green spaces that absorb and filter excess water. Green infrastructure is in Peoria’s plans, and the city is hopeful it can obtain federal dollars through the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which allows more flexibility in green infrastructure. 

There also are things your residents can do, including using cisterns and rain barrels to collect rain water to water their lawns and gardens. Residents also can create their own rain gardens and other green infrastructure.

The problem is not going away but, with creative thinking and financing, and community buy-in, CSO can be addressed and overcome.

NLC Service Line Warranty Program partners with municipalities to educate homeowners and offer affordable protection against potentially costly service line repairs. The Program uses a network of local plumbers who have gone through background and drug screenings. The Program’s 500-seat call center is staffed 24/7/365 to answer claims calls and dispatch contractors to address homeowners’ emergencies. The Program is provided at no cost to cities, and partner municipalities can receive royalties based on participation. To find out how you can help your residents achieve peace of mind, contact us.