Reducing Combined Sewer Overflows in the Great Lakes: Why Investing in Infrastructure is Critical to Improving Water Quality

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Drenching spring and summer downpours often overwhelm municipal wastewater treatment plants and spill billions of gallons of raw sewage and stormwater into the Great Lakes.

This all-too-predictable seasonal cocktail brings with it a host of unsavory pollutants: household chemicals, solid waste, and nasty bacteria and viruses that make a day at the beach an exercise in frustration and risk.

Knowing this, communities are upgrading aging sewage infrastructure and pipes, separating combined sewer systems that allow stormwater to mix with household wastewater, and adding rooftop greenery, rain gardens and other green infrastructure. Such solutions are costly, however, and can be tough to finance even in strong economic times.

A new report by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, “Reducing Combined Sewer Overflows in the Great Lakes: Why Investing in Infrastructure is Critical to Improving Water Quality,” looks at the success of the federal Clean Water State Revolving Fund in helping finance these projects, and reminds us why the fund’s future is critical to keeping Great Lakes water clean. A subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to consider funding for this vital program as soon as Wednesday.

Download the report: AGL Reducing CSO #13 FINAL

The CWSRF provides low-interest loans and flexible financing to help local governments carry out much-needed wastewater management projects and innovative green infrastructure development. Since its inception in 1987, the fund benefitted from a $33.5 billion investment from the federal government and provided $89.5 billion in loans to states for municipal wastewater facilities, nonpoint-source pollution control and estuary management projects. For every federal dollar appropriated, states contribute 20 cents. The fund grows as a result of principal repayment, interest earnings and proceeds from leveraging the loans.

Recently, the CWSRF was funded at a higher level than much of the 2000s, but the annual allocation of federal funds to the program have decreased since 2011 and another cut is proposed for 2013. These decreases come at a time when public support for federal funding of Great Lakes restoration is high. A poll released earlier this month by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition found 72 percent of Ohio voters support continued federal funding of Great Lakes restoration, and 54 percent reject the idea that the Great Lakes should take a budget cut.

Investments in wastewater infrastructure create jobs, save money and are a solid use of taxpayer dollars at a time when the nation needs to make smart choices,” said Lyman Welch, Alliance Water Quality Program director and co-author of the study. “If we don’t make these investments today, it will cost us more tomorrow.”

In 2011 alone, some 18.7 billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater was dumped into the Great Lakes by seven of the basin’s largest dischargers. The bacteria, viruses and other pathogens in untreated sewage pose a significant health risk and often contribute to Great Lakes beach closings. These closings come at a cost to local economies, with some studies showing the value of a beach trip to range from $20-$36 per person, per day. At the same time, investment in the Great Lakes’ overall health is more than a safe bet: a 2007 Brookings Institution study reported a $2 return on every $1 invested.

The largest sources of combined sewer overflow pollution into the Great Lakes by volume come from the wastewater treatment facilities of the region’s biggest municipalities: Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Chicago also contributes a significant amount, and several smaller municipalities — Buffalo, N.Y., Hammond, Ind. and Toledo, Ohio, also experience significant overflows. The Alliance report highlights two communities — Rochester, N.Y. and Grand Rapids, Mich. – which, thanks to the CWSRF, have achieved substantial reductions in their CSO volumes.

“Investing in sewer improvements and green infrastructure to filter and treat polluted runoff would not only significantly reduce pollution, it would also stimulate local economies by creating much-needed jobs,” said Milwaukee Riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn.

“Fixing aging and failing sewer pipes is not rocket science. It’s plumbing. We can fix our broken sewers, create jobs and improve water quality in our rivers and lakes — we just need the funding and political will to do so.”

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper Executive Director Jill Jedlicka affirmed the need to maintain investment in sewer infrastructure in Buffalo, N.Y. “We are at a critical point in our decades-long struggle to address combined sewer overflows into Western New York’s waterways,” she said. “Riverkeeper’s unique partnership with the Buffalo Sewer Authority in identifying and implementing green infrastructure stormwater solutions is a great example of how strategic investment can benefit water quality and the local economy.”

Olga Lyandres, Alliance research manager and the report’s co-author, terms today’s combined sewer systems “relics of the 19th century.”

“Overflows from these systems have jeopardized public health and severely degraded our water quality,” she said. “The Great Lakes region must develop a sustainable urban sewage infrastructure that will ensure clean water for generations to come.”


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