With More Big Storms, We Need More Infrastructure Funding

Yesterday’s record-breaking rain in the DC area showed just how unprepared we are for the storms that climate change is making more intense and more frequent. The flood tested our region’s water infrastructure, and we failed the test.
Combined sewer overflow warning sign in Washington, DC. Photo: NRDC

Yesterday’s record-breaking rain in the DC area showed just how unprepared we are for the storms that climate change is making more intense and more frequent. The flood tested our region’s water infrastructure, and we failed the test.

We have an opportunity to use this event as a wake-up call and take action by increasing investment in our infrastructure’s resiliency. The only problem: a group of wastewater utilities is holding up legislation that could deliver much-needed funding to our communities.

A Surge of Stormwater and Sewage

According to the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, a month’s worth of rain—3.3 inches—fell on the capital region in just one hour. The first-ever flash flood emergency was declared for the city as 3 billion gallons of water drenched the District.

Local wastewater and stormwater infrastructure didn’t handle the deluge very well.

In the one-third of the District served by combined sewers, a mix of rainwater and raw sewage spilled from outfalls into the Anacostia, Potomac, and Rock Creek. DC Water’s spokesperson warned residents against contact with local waterways for at least 72 hours due to bacteria and trash in the water following these overflows.

Throughout the area, sewage backed up into people’s basements and water spewed from manhole covers as rain overwhelmed the capacity of sewer and stormwater pipes. Streets flooded with runoff that had nowhere to go, stranding cars and requiring first responders to rescue passengers by boat.

Our infrastructure just couldn’t handle all that water.

Storms Like This Will Happen Again

Granted, this storm was off the charts. But it’s exactly what climate scientists have been telling us to expect.

According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, extreme downpours like what we saw yesterday are becoming increasingly common and more severe. The NCA found that the amount of rain falling in the worst 1 percent of storms has already risen by 55 percent in the Northeast since the middle of the last century.

We can expect that trend to continue. As the Washington Post explains, storm environments with exceptionally high amounts of atmospheric water content are likely to increase due to climate change-induced rising temperatures, and “it’s plausible Monday’s rainstorm was intensified by the climate warming that has already occurred.”

In other words, intense precipitation events aren’t some far-off future problem—they’re happening now. They will happen again. And our wastewater and stormwater infrastructure isn’t up to the task of dealing with them.

We’ve Got 99 Infrastructure Problems, and Climate Change Is Only One of Them

But it’s not just during abnormally huge storms that our infrastructure fails us. It happens all the time.

Much of America’s wastewater infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. Many systems across the country are literally falling apart. That’s one of the main reasons the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s wastewater infrastructure a “D+” grade in its 2017 infrastructure report card.

Combined sewer overflows, like the one we experienced in DC yesterday, can spill sewage into rivers and streams after relatively small rainstorms in many places. According to the EPA, they’re a major water pollution concern for approximately 772 cities across the country.

Even in areas without combined sewers, old sewage pipes are easily broken by roots and other disturbances, allowing rainwater to leak inside. This extra volume can cause problems at wastewater treatment plants. To avoid damage to their facilities, these plants sometimes discharge sewage that’s only partially treated—an environmentally risky practice the Trump administration is poised to authorize nationwide

Our stormwater infrastructure isn’t doing much better.

In developed areas, rainwater that once soaked into the ground now runs off hard surfaces like rooftops, parking lots, and streets in huge amounts. It flows into storm drains and ultimately into local waterways, carrying pollution like fertilizer, pet waste, and trash that it picks up along the way. During intense storms, the sheer volume of water flowing through those pipes can blow receiving waters out of their banks. Sometimes—like yesterday—it can’t even fit into the pipes at all.

Bottom Line: We Need to Invest More

Both for these everyday problems and the challenges exacerbated by climate change, we need to increase our investment in our communities’ wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

We need to fix and upgrade our pipes and treatment plants. We need to install more rain-capturing green infrastructure that prevents pollution and flooding at the source. And we need to ramp up pollution control programs to keep our water safe and healthy.

The EPA has found that we need to invest $271 billion in maintaining and repairing our wastewater and stormwater infrastructure over the next twenty years just to meet current environmental and health standards. Climate change could increase those costs substantially.

Yet despite these needs, federal spending on water infrastructure has been decreasing dramatically. Between 1980 and 2014, federal funding for water and wastewater utilities dropped nearly fourfold. Cash-strapped state and local governments are now left to pick up the tab, accounting for 96% of all public spending on water and wastewater infrastructure.

Wastewater Utilities Are Standing in the Way of Increased Funds

There’s a bill pending in the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that would help address these needs: H.R. 1497, the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act.

This bill would significantly increase authorized funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the nation’s largest and most important source of federal funds for stormwater and wastewater infrastructure. The bill would also reauthorize a grant program that helps communities deal with sewer overflows.

The bill has bipartisan support. So why hasn’t it passed already?

A group of wastewater utilities—the same utilities that would benefit from the bill’s increase in funding levels—are holding the bill hostage. They’re pressuring committee members to weaken the Clean Water Act by incorporating a provision that would double the length of the utilities’ pollution discharge permits from 5 to 10 years. This change would allow wastewater and stormwater dischargers to operate under standards and requirements that are long since out-of-date, with serious water quality consequences.

That’s unacceptable. We shouldn’t have to trade away clean water protections in order to get much-needed infrastructure funding to our communities.

In trying to roll back pollution safeguards, the utilities are jeopardizing this critical piece of legislation. Yesterday’s storm showed that we desperately need to boost investment in our wastewater and stormwater systems—and we need to do it fast. Before the next big storm hits.