Climate change, extreme weather put wastewater systems in peril, operators warn

This GOES-East GeoColor satellite image taken at 12:01 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, and provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows the eye of Hurricane Ian approaching the southwest coast of Florida. Hurricane Ian’s most damaging winds began hitting Florida’s southwest coast Wednesday, lashing the state with heavy rain and pushing a devastating storm surge after strengthening to the threshold of the most dangerous Category 5 status. (NOAA via AP)

As the climate changes and extreme weather events become more common, the nation’s aging wastewater treatment facilities – which turn sewage into safe-to-discharge effluent – face potentially catastrophic failures, an industry group is warning.  

At a news conference Thursday, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies highlighted 10 extreme rain and flood events so far this year, including Hurricane Ian last month which forced several wastewater treatment plants in Florida to release untreated or partially treated sewage.

Other extreme weather events in 2022 were June’s 500-year flooding in Yellowstone National Park, July’s 1,000-year rain event in Kentucky and September’s Hurricane Fiona which slammed into Puerto Rico. In Kentucky, one county’s water infrastructure was “totally annihilated,” according to NACWA’s fact sheet. 

“As we adapt to new water cycle extremes, we need sufficient federal assistance for critical investments in drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems, operations, green infrastructure, and equity,” Andrew Lee, CEO of Seattle Public Utilities, said in a statement.

Last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law included more than $50 billion to shore up U.S. water infrastructure. That includes $12 billion for wastewater and stormwater management systems.

But NACWA estimates the nation’s water infrastructure funding gap totals nearly $1 trillion over the next two decades.

“While funding authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is helpful, these funds are nowhere near enough to address stormwater management challenges nationwide,” said Brian Perkovich, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, in a statement.

The wastewater treatment leaders warned that without more federal funding, the cost of upgrading systems will continue to fall to local ratepayers, with a disproportionate impact on lower-income residents. 

“Congress must fully appropriate the necessary funding in a future spending bill,” Perkovich said. 

Some of the facilities at highest risk for overflows are in older Midwestern cities where sewer and stormwater systems are combined, according to NACWA.

The wastewater treatment facility leaders timed their warning to coincide with this months’ 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, a 1972 law governing water pollution.  

NACWA describes itself as the advocacy group for the nation’s public wastewater and stormwater agencies.