It is nothing new to say that our country’s wastewater infrastructure is in need of investment. The ASCE’s 2013 Infrastructure Report Card estimated that capital investment needs for the nation’s wastewater and stormwater systems total $298 billion over the next twenty years. We expect an updated infrastructure report card to reveal a widening gap in investment. Based upon the daunting size of the need, it is likely that the facts will be lost on the public. Instead, it may be more helpful to frame the argument for increased funding by explaining a simple fact: Our sewer systems are in need of investment because they are old.
How Old Are They?
Sewage conveyance systems have been in existence for thousands of years with some dating back to the ancient Romans as early as 800 BC. For the most part, these systems weren’t centralized, generally leading to a dry privy vault, cesspool, or a nearby body of water. The majority of cities didn’t employ centralized sanitary collection systems until the late nineteenth century. Prior to that, cities like Paris and London had open sewers draining to the Seine and Thames Rivers, leading to unsanitary conditions, foul smells, and the spread of disease. The first modern, centralized water-carriage sewer system was constructed in Hamburg, Germany in 1843. In England, an event called the “Great Stink” in the summer of 1858 led Parliament to act, commissioning London’s Chief Engineer Joseph Bazalgette to construct an extensive sanitary sewer. The London system included elaborate pump stations and outfalls far outside the city.
The first combined-sewer systems in the United States were constructed shortly thereafter in Chicago and Brooklyn. Chicago began its enterprise following a devastating cholera epidemic that killed six percent of the city’s residents. The engineering required to build gravity sewers in Chicago, with its flat terrain, was monumental. The city and its buildings were raised a few feet or more to keep the sewers flowing. Sewage poured into the Chicago River and out to Lake Michigan, which polluted the city’s drinking water source. This eventually led the city’s engineers to reverse the Chicago River so that it flowed away from Lake Michigan (and instead into the Mississippi River, which did not please Saint Louis).
When Did Things Change?
As cities grew, and receiving waters or land application sites grew more foul, the need for some kind of wastewater treatment became apparent. The first treatment plant utilizing chemical precipitation was built in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1889. By the turn of the century, cities caught on and began to turn away from dilution as their primary means of treating wastewater. Across the nation, from Los Angeles, California to Madison, Wisconsin to Providence, Rhode Island, and Boston, Massachusetts, municipalities built some form of treatment plant.
The vast majority of sewer pipe in the United States was installed following World War II. Wastewater treatment plants saw many updates in the early 1970s, as federal regulation required primary and secondary treatment for all sewer systems, and the prevalence of federal and state grant programs meant there was funding to pay for it.
Still, remnants of 100-year-old sewer systems remain in service. News stories pop up from time to time of old sewer lines collapsing in New York or of homeowners in Denver being astonished that their home built in the early 1900s is connected to the sewer by leaking pipe of the same vintage. Not only are these old pipes leaking, but they’re also prone to clogs. Municipal Sewer and Water reports that, “According to an EPA survey, about 30 percent of pipes are 40 to 80 years old, and roughly 10 percent of pipes are more than 80 years old.”
What Needs to Be Done?
We are now in what has been termed the “replacement era” for water and wastewater infrastructure. As noted, the costs are staggering and will only increase with time. A recent story on Marketplace about the Baltimore sewer system summed up the situation well. The city is undergoing a $1.5 billion program to replace and rebuild its 100-year-old collections system, which the public works director referred to as a “time bomb” because the city knows they can’t replace the old infrastructure fast enough. The old portions of the sewer infrastructure are certain to fail and to pay the hefty price of the inevitable repairs, the city had to raise user rates. The funds collected over the past century have clearly failed to meet the city’s current need.
In nearby Washington D.C., DC Water is spending $1.2 billion to fund a 10-year plan to improve its aging water and sewer infrastructure. However, that cost only represents replacement of one percent of its aging infrastructure per year, i.e. a 100-year replacement cycle. That slow replacement cycle is bound to lead to problems. According to the Center for American Progress, “The ASCE estimates that aging pipes and inadequate capacity lead to the discharge of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater into U.S. waterways each year, enough to cover New York City under a layer 127 feet deep.”
Governments will need to find innovative ways to fund repairs and improvements. The Obama administration has taken a small step in that direction by launching a new Water Finance Center at EPA to:
“work closely with municipal and state governments, utilities and private sector partners to use federal grants to attract more private capital into projects and promote models of public private collaboration that can address the real needs of cities and towns to provide safe water, rebuild sewer systems and keep streams and rivers clean.”
The expensive and slow road to repair and renewal, in D.C. and across the United States, requires that municipalities employ smart and cost-effective strategies for replacement and rehabilitation. Finding creative ways to address failing infrastructure and speed up the replacement cycle will become more and more important.