New Report: Solving Region’s Sewage Crisis Will Create Jobs, Restore Great Lakes

Reversing federal wastewater infrastructure deficit, investing in “green” solutions key to tackling sewage overflows—serious public health threat

Failure to Address $23 Billion Backlog Could Hamper Restoration Efforts

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (Aug. 9, 2010) —The Great Lakes are under siege from sewage pollution, four decades after Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act, according to a new report from the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. (Click here to download the report.)

According to the report, “Turning the Tide: Investing in Wastewater Infrastructure to Create Jobs and Solve the Sewage Crisis in the Great Lakes,” communities that rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water, economic development and recreation dump tens of billions of gallons of untreated sewage every year into the nation’s largest source of surface fresh water.

From January 2009 through January 2010, just five cities on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes — Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind. — discharged 41 billion gallons of untreated sewage and filthy storm water into the Lakes, according to government data analyzed by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. That volume equals the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls during a 15-hour period.

“The Great Lakes are under siege from sewage overflows,” said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “This report underscores that we have solutions to keep our beaches open, our people healthy and our economy growing. Inaction, however, will exacerbate a problem that is already very serious.”

Discharges of untreated sewage occur when rain overwhelms combined sewer systems that collect and treat storm water and sanitary sewage. Combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, are one of the most serious pollution problems facing the Great Lakes. These discharges sicken people, force beach closures, prompt health advisories, harm wildlife and hurt tourism.

“People don’t realize that without good sewage treatment, millions of pathogenic viruses, bacteria and parasites are being discharged to our waters,” said Joan Rose, Ph.D., Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research, Michigan State University. “These microbes can cause short-term and longer-term illnesses and are easily transmitted to and readily survive in recreational waters, drinking water sources as well as ground water.”

Further, global warming will exacerbate the problem. Rising temperatures are expected to bring more snow and rain to the region in the winter and spring, with increasing frequency and intensity of storms. The result: more pressure on failing storm and wastewater systems, which could lead to more sewage overflows.

Solving the sewage crisis, according to the report, will cost billions. Landmark environmental legislation in the 1960s and 1970s sparked a much-needed infusion of federal dollars that helped reduce sewage pollution. In the decades since, however, the federal government has failed to adequately fund the nation’s storm water and wastewater programs.

“America’s investment in wastewater infrastructure,” the report states, “has not kept pace with the severity of the problem.”

“Failing infrastructure cannot support a healthy economy, or a healthy population,” said Blaine D. Leonard, P.E., D.GE, F.ASCE, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “For more than a decade, ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure has been calling for increased funding and leadership to protect and improve these critical infrastructure systems. However, the funding gap and the consequence of inaction have continued to grow larger. Today’s report from Healing Our Waters should serve as yet another reminder of what’s at stake if we do nothing.”

For the better part of the last decade, the federal government has cut funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund — which provides low-interest loans for sewer upgrades — from $1.35 billion in 1998 to $689 million in 2008. The Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin receive, by formula, about 36 percent of funds. While last year’s Congressional budget appropriated $2 billion for the popular program, there is much more work to do.

The nation, according to the report, faces a $298 billion backlog of work, with communities in the Great Lakes basin facing a $23.3 billion tab to modernize and fix wastewater and storm water systems. For many cash-strapped cities facing rising unemployment and increasing rates of poverty, there is far more work that needs to be done than money to pay for it.

“U.S. and Canadian cities clearly recognize the magnitude of this problem, and have been working for years to improve grey and green infrastructure and investing well over $11 billion annually to solve it,” said Dave Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. “It is time for state, provincial, and federal governments to share more of the burden of protecting this global freshwater treasure.”

The report urges Congress to provide at least $2.7 billion this year for sewer upgrades nationally ($972 million for Great Lakes states), with 20 percent of that money going to green infrastructure projects – rain gardens, vegetated roofs and pervious pavement that help capture and cleanse storm water and reduce the volume of water flowing off the landscape and into sanitary sewers and surface waters. “Turning the Tide” profiles communities big and small—from Chicago to Grayling, Mich.—that are implementing green solutions to deal with their storm water.

“Green infrastructure, such as green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement, are cost-effective ways of reducing sewage overflows,” said Gary Belan, director, clean water program, American Rivers. “Green infrastructure is designed to manage storm water naturally, keeping it out of our sewers and minimizing sewage overflows. Green infrastructure has multiple benefits beyond reducing sewage spills. It creates healthier, more vital communities, protects clean water, saves energy, and helps build green jobs.”

“Turning the Tide” makes a compelling case that a robust federal investment in both tradition and green wastewater infrastructure in the region—and across the nation—can create tens of thousands of jobs. Every $1 billion invested in wastewater infrastructure, according to sources in the report, creates at least 20,003 jobs. Stopping sewage overflows is a priority for the regional Great Lakes restoration strategy that provides a 2-to-1 return on investment, according to the Brookings Institution.

“Investing in Great Lakes wastewater infrastructure is good for the environment and economy,” said Ed Wolking, Jr., of the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition. “Chambers of commerce understand that healthy lakes translate to a healthy economy. The federal government needs to make a bigger investment in wastewater and storm water infrastructure to continue the progress we’re making in restoring the Great Lakes and reviving the region’s economy.”

Eliminating combined sewage overflows is an important part of the larger effort to heal the Great Lakes from decades of pollution. A comprehensive Great Lakes restoration strategy, endorsed by the region’s mayors, governors, environmentalists and business and industry leaders, recommends a federal investment of more than $20 billion to restore the Lakes. That includes $14 billion to upgrade wastewater infrastructure in communities within the Great Lakes basin – in addition to normal Clean Water State Revolving Fund appropriations.

The report warns that failure to confront the sewage contamination crisis will slow efforts to restore the Lakes at a time when Congress and the Obama Administration have been widely credited for jump-starting a moribund federal effort through the creation and funding of the $475 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The program invests in restoring habitat, cleaning up toxic pollution, controlling invasive species and reducing city and farm run-off.

“At a time when President Obama and the U.S. Congress have made Great Lakes restoration and economic recovery a national priority, ignoring the sewage crisis will be a setback,” said Skelding. “Cities know how to fix the problem — they just need financial assistance from Congress to get the job done.”

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition consists of more than 100 environmental, conservation, outdoor recreation organizations, zoos, aquariums and museums representing millions of people, whose common goal is to restore and protect the Great Lakes.

Jordan Lubetkin, Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, 734-904-1589,

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