What To Do With America's Costly Aging Sewer Systems?

Aging sewer systems across the country create public health and environmental impacts, driving costs up for local governments. Learn how the city of Baltimore has been struggling to pay for court-ordered repairs needed to address untreated waste in waterways.


Editor's Note: Article updated January 31, 2018 to reflect an update on Baltimore's sewer upgrades.

Aging sewer systems across the country have created significant environmental and public health problems and repair has driven up costs for local communities. Because demand for upgrades is so extensive, many cities are struggling to pay for this key public service.

The Sewer Situation

Census figures indicate 20 percent of Americans own septic tanks and are responsible for the maintenance of their sewage disposal systems. The remaining 80 percent of Americans, however, are served by municipal water treatment plants and have no control over how their waste is removed and managed. These public treatment plants are aging rapidly across the country, and may not be able to keep pace with demand from a growing population. When strain is placed on a water system, overflow of waste water can occur, releasing a mixture of stormwater and sewage back into bodies of water throughout the community.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), roughly 23,000 to 75,000 sanitary-sewer overflows occur annually throughout the United States, totaling between 3 and 10 billion gallons of untreated waste, according to The Atlantic.

The Public Health & Environmental Impacts

Several studies reveal untreated waste released from sewage treatment plants are negatively affecting populations on a large scale. A study from the Medical College of Wisconsin found emergency room visits for gastrointestinal distress in 2010 increased dramatically after heavy rainfall. When storms hit a community, rainwater washes pathogens into nearby lakes and rivers where residents get drinking water or engage in recreational activities. Thus, exposure to dangerous substances becomes more prevalent. In addition, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found a common type of sewage treatment system known as combined sewer systems has been directly linked to a rise in gastrointestinal distress cases.

The EPA considers the overflow of these combined sewer systems to be the largest aspect of wasterwater infrastructure still in need of immediate repair across the country. The agency's report finds 32 states house outdated combined sewer systems, and is currently working with municipalities to address these disparities. However, the massive costs associated with the upgrades, as well as the extensive changes to how the public service would be delivered, is making it difficult for any swift solution to take place, The Atlantic reported.

Baltimore's Sewer Upgrades

Over 13 years, the city of Baltimore spent $700 million repairing its aging sewer system. The city then promised to allocate another $400 million toward the project, as the sewers continue to overflow when it rains and pollute nearby streams and the harbor with raw human waste. Baltimore's sewer lines are corroded and full of holes, allowing for dangerous materials to be released into water supplies, The Baltimore Sun reported.

Baltimore County is under a federal consent decree to stop chronic sewage overflows and leaks by 2020. The city upgraded 85 miles of sewer lines by plugging up leaks and to prevent overflows, while spending $250 million on sewer cleaning and rehabilitation. However, the city still had significant repairs left to complete that were expected to take until 2018, driving up the total cost to $1.5 billion. However, the timeline was revised to 2020 when repairs were not completed at the close of 2015 -- due to the massive price tag of the project, according to a 2017 update by The Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore officials estimated most of the city's sewer lines are 70 to 80 years old and cannot handle the flow of wastewater generated by today's population. The majority of overflows stem from blockages in sewer lines caused by grease, rags, trash or other inappropriate material. The city attributed some of the blockages to residents and businesses flushing the wrong items down the sewer system. However, the sewer lines' advanced age and lack of maintenance have led to cracks, breaks and corrosion in pipes that cause leaks and overflows as well.

We’ve known for years that the Headworks Project is an essential step toward helping us meet the terms of our sewer consent decree,” City Public Works Director Rudolph S. Chow told the Sun. “Our engineers have finally been able to put together a plan to turn it into reality, and build it in a way that is fiscally responsible.”

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