World Water Week and Urban Water Infrastructure

Did you know that last week was World Water Week? Every August, aqua enthusiasts from around the world celebrate -- and voice concerns -- about water, and every year, World Water Week takes on a different theme. This year's theme was "Responding to Global Changes: Water in an Urbanising World."

From their website: "To create liveable cities for a turbulent future, considerable investments are required in infrastructure and in institutional and governance arrangements. These must be combined with social programmes that rectify gender, age and habitat injustices."

Consider these points:

  • Around 95 percent of the global population increase will be in urban areas.

  • By 2050, the urban population is estimated to be of the same size as the total global population today. That's 7 billion people living in cities around the world.
  • Most of the growth is expected in smaller cities.
  • Clearly, urban infrastructure will be a key to the sustainability (or lack thereof) and future growth of the planet's population. Unfortunately, infrastructure in the United States, especially where water is concerned, is in bad shape, and our ability to support the projected population increases will be compromised if we don't make some changes.

    The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's water and wastewater infrastructure a D- in its recently conducted evaluation. Our country's drinking water systems face an annual shortfall of $11 billion (and that's before accounting for any growth), and our wastewater systems fare even worse, with annual shortages ranging from $13 billion to almost $21 billion. It's no wonder that water main breaks and sewage spills are commonplace.

    Infrastructure failures happen every day, often with serious economic results. Unfortunately, our investment in infrastructure continues to decline. In a time of "spending less" and "shrinking government," we still need investments that keep water and wastewater facilities up and running.

    Here are a few recent examples, bad and good, of our water and wastewater infrastructure issues that prove that a little government spending ain't such a bad thing.

    Water Main Breaks


    Remember that water main break in Boston last year? It caused millions of gallons of municipally treated water to spill, disrupted businesses and required large numbers of residents to have to boil their water and rely on bottled water. Water main breaks affect small business owners, like the many coffee shops that closed or at least stopped serving coffee. Even Dunkin' Donuts shops closed, and if you've ever been to Boston, you know that closing a Dunkin' is a big deal.

    Washington, D.C.

    The next stop on the water main break tour is D.C., or more specifically Maryland. In January of this year a massive water main break closed the inner loop of the Capital Beltway for hours. As a former commuter on the Beltway, I can only imagine what a mess that was. Lots of businesses were affected, and even some government offices had to close due to a lack of water, and (once again) residents were told to boil their water. The estimated repair cost was $1 million. (Note to local D.C. lawmakers: the 1800s called; they want their infrastructure back.)


    According to the mayor of Houston, which has been in the throes of a statewide drought for months, water main breaks have increased across the city from an average of 200 per day to as many as 700. Per day. It might seem counterintuitive for pipes to burst during a summer drought, but, as the dryness persists, the soil shrinks and pulls away from the pipes, leaving space for them to burst from increased summertime use. Many of the pipes are old or at the end of their life span, so they can't handle the pressure, and they break. Fixing all those breaks is a burden on local government municipalities, including water districts, as well as home owners, who are typically responsible for all water pipe leaks and breaks between the street and the house.

    Wastewater Spills

    New York City

    The "Center of the Universe" was the center of a lot of untreated sewage flowing straight into the Hudson River just a few short weeks ago when a fire in a control room caused a main wastewater treatment plant in New York City to shut down. With 200 million gallons of raw sewage flowing into the river, many beaches were closed, and businesses that rely on the river were impacted. In fact, for those who make a living on the river, the impacts were severe, especially because the spill coincided with record-setting heat (New Yorkers might remember that 108-degree day).

    Treatment plant fires aside, sewage flows into the Hudson River are a regular occurrence -- every time we get a big rain -- so it is a continual problem. A recent Riverkeeper report helps to drive this point home.


    Even one of the nation's most expensive infrastructure projects, Chicago's Deep Tunnel, can't keep sewage overflows from hitting Lake Michigan, and now the EPA is investigating why. During two storm events between 2008 and 2010, billions of gallons of raw sewage was dumped into Lake Michigan. The city's $3-billion tunnel system was supposed to be able to control and remove flood waters, but the city experienced some of its most intense rain events ever, and the wastewater system became overwhelmed. However, even smaller rain events can cause billions of gallons of contaminated water to run off into the lake. This is not something I'd want to hear if I were one of those 7 million people who rely on Lake Michigan for their drinking water.


    When storm sewers and wastewater sewers are combined, they mix precipitation with sewage, sending everything to the wastewater treatment plant before being released to receiving water bodies (typically rivers, but in Seattle's case, Puget Sound). During major precipitation events, storm sewer flow can overwhelm wastewater treatment plants, and the plants are forced to release often untreated or minimally treated sewage. Many cities are making efforts to segregate this piping so that the plants function as designed.

    Seattle has completed about 95 percent of its combined sewer overflow correction projects and is poised to spend an addition $1.3 billion to address the remaining 5 percent; however, at this point much more pollution is generated from storm water runoff than from combined sewer overflows.

    According to the state agency charged with cleaning up Puget Sound, the Puget Sound Partnership, the Sound's real pollution problems stem from surface runoff from storm drains. Unfortunately, the $1.3 billion dedicated to combined sewer overflow projects can't be reassigned to address surface runoff contamination. Limited funds complicate the issue, leading some in the Puget Sound Partnership to question the value of spending any more money on combined sewer overflow issues.

    Storm water runoff isn't as sexy as sewage overflows (can you call sewage "sexy"?) because it doesn't have the "yuck" factor that raw sewage does and thus doesn't grab the same attention and funding. And people aren't necessarily making the connection that their small contributions to the gutters in front of their houses are collectively creating a huge water pollution problem.

    Getting It Right

    Portland, Ore.

    Portland's wastewater treatment system was releasing up to 6 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the Willamette River each year. As we've seen across the country, major precipitation events can force cities with combined sewer overflow systems to release massive amounts of untreated sewage into receiving waters.

    This was made even worse in Portland because many downspouts from gutters in the city were plumbed directly into the sewer system, driving up sewer pipe flow rates during heavy rainfall. The city was forced into a costly program that included, among other things, disconnecting downspouts. Over $1.4 billion later, the city has managed to get a handle on its combined sewer overflow and now sends 96 percent less flow through the system than it did at the program's inception in 1991.


    The city of Philadelphia's sewer system is 60-percent combined, and the city goes to great lengths to reduce the amount of storm water flowing into the system. Green infrastructure policies and projects have been implemented throughout the city. It has initiated a storm water fee system, and it has created stringent storm water regulations for all new construction and redevelopment projects. The changes that have been put in place will save the city money as well as extend the life of pipes and treatment plants by reducing the load on the whole system. A little proactive planning will go a long way in preventing costly damage.

    Cities can be models of efficiency and sustainability, but efforts to promote those qualities take funding, and there is great return on that investment. According to a recent study conducted by the Clean Water Council, "Every $1 billion invested in water and wastewater infrastructure results in total national output [i.e., demand for products and services in all industries] of up to $3.46 billion, and approximately $82.4 million in state and local tax revenue.

    Additionally, the CWC study estimates that a $1 billion investment generates measurable national employment in 325 other standard industry classifications.

    We have to stay committed to keeping our city infrastructure functioning well if we're going to absorb anticipated population increases and continue to live comfortably. It's an investment that will truly pay off for the environment and the economy.