Don’t Poo Where You Drink

You may not want to think of sewers and stimulation at the same time, but the two together may provide the perfect solution to many of our woes. Our region needs new sewers and we need jobs.

Chicago has the oldest comprehensive sewer system in the United States dating back to the 1800s, but like all our region’s sewer systems we built them and then forgot about them. Two years ago, the Canadian environmental group Sierra Legal released a report card grading twenty cities, which sit on the Great Lakes Basin, on their ability to manage their poo. They found that these cities were dumping more than 100 Olympic size swimming pools full of untreated sewage into the Great Lakes every single day. That adds up to nearly 24 billion gallons of raw sewage making its home in the Lakes each year. So what is the problem? Our ancient sewer system and combined sewers in particular. The combined sewer mixes the storm water system with our toilet system bringing it all together through one pipe that tends to overflow during rough storms.

It wasn’t enough to ignore the sewers, we have actively neglected them. Over the last two decades federal cash for infrastructure projects has declined by 70 percent. Now we are slowly, agonizingly realizing that was not good policy. This Fall, while the US Congress considered an economic stimulus bill, HOW wrote a letter urging them to ensure that $6.5 billion would go towards updating our sewers and wastewater treatment programs and as a byproduct create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration decided to hand this one off to the next Congress. The good news is that while campaigning for US President, Barack Obama promised to increase federal funding for water treatment and projects aimed at reducing storm water runoff. Since the election, Obama has said he intends to make a $60 billion to $100 billion economic stimulus package a priority as soon as he is sworn into office. A number of Democrats have suggested using water and other infrastructure projects as a jobs creation program.

This isn’t just about the environment and the economy; it is also about human health. One of the most basic, civilizing instruments throughout time has been the toilet. When the new Congress meets next year, HOW will continue its campaign to include funding to update our sewer systems in an economic stimulus package.

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