America Needs to Fix its Sanitary Sewer System (Source: Water & Wastes Digest)

Nov 12, 2021

By Wayne Swafford and Jeremy Nakashima

On Friday, Nov. 5, Congress passed a massive $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, which was subsequently signed into law, Monday, Nov. 15 by President Joe Biden.

With the passage of this measure, public works agencies across the country are ramping up plans to rehabilitate roads and bridges, modernize public transit, upgrade airports, ports, and waterways, and implement climate resilience and broadband initiatives. While these projects are critical, cities and public works agencies should also pay attention to another problem festering beneath the surface: sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs).

What are Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs)?

SSOs are untreated raw sewage released into the environment that pose a great risk to human health. They occur when sewer lines clog or break, heavy rainfall overloads the sewer system, or due to equipment malfunction and power outages. SSOs create water quality issues, contaminate our environment, damage public and private properties, impact local and state economies, and negatively affect the quality of life in communities.

The U.S. EPA estimates that there are at least 23,000 to 75,000 SSOs per year in the U.S. Most SSOs are caused by aging infrastructure that needs maintenance or replacement. Given that much of the nation’s sewage infrastructure is several decades old, the risks keep increasing every year. In recent years, several cities in Texas, including Houston, Corpus Christi, and Tyler have negotiated consent decrees with the EPA to upgrade their aging wastewater systems and reduce SSOs.

To address this issue proactively, cities and public agencies across the country should implement long-term sanitary sewer rehabilitation programs. The infrastructure bill allocates $55 billion to upgrade the country’s water infrastructure over a five-year period, with $280 million in municipal grants to address SSOs and stormwater reuse. While this amount is not enough to address all sanitary sewer issues, it is a down payment to get the ball rolling.