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August 15, 2008 - Maria Lehman, P.E., F. ASCE testimony - Wastewater Infrastructure Investment for America's Urban Areas

AUGUST 15, 2008

Good morning, Congressman Higgins.

My name is Maria Lehman, P.E., F.ASCE. I am pleased to appear before you today on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) to discuss the need for modern, wellfunctioning wastewater treatment and storm water management systems in America’s older cities.

I am the incoming chair of National American Society of Civil Engineers Committee on Government Affairs and the Transportation Systems Business Sector Director for Bergmann Associates. I am also the former Erie County Commissioner of Public Works.

The United States faces a growing crisis in the operation of wastewater treatment plants.

The federal government has directly invested more than $80 billion in the construction of publicly owned sewage treatment works (POTWs) and their related facilities since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Most of this funding had occurred between 1973 and 1988.

But the physical condition of many of the nation's 16,000 wastewater treatment systems is poor due to a lack of investment in plant, equipment, and other capital improvements over the years. The typical lifespan of wastewater equipment is 20 years, even when well maintained.

Nearly six years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a detailed gap analysis, which assessed the difference between current spending for wastewater infrastructure and total funding needs. 

The EPA Gap Analysis estimated that, over the next two decades, the United States must spend nearly $390 billion to replace antiquated wastewater infrastructure and to build new treatment plants.

In the January 2008 “Clean Watersheds Needs Survey,” EPA said that the nation should have invested at least $202.5 billion as of January 1, 2004, in wastewater treatment systems to prevent combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, and other polluting conditions. The estimate is a snapshot and may not reflect total national needs. The Buffalo Sewer Authority is looking at an estimated $500 million in project costs to address compliance for combined sewer overflows. This number does not take into account the $10 million that is currently spent on capital improvements to the treatment plant and collection system. And it also doesn’t take into account that the City of Buffalo has a constitutional cap of $125 million constitutional cap for bonded indebtedness.

Combined sewer systems were among the earliest sewers built in the United States and continued to be built until the middle of the twentieth century, according to EPA. When it rains or when snow melts, the volume of sanitary wastewater and storm water runoff entering these combined systems often exceeds their capacity. The City of Buffalo is a prime example of a combined sewer system.

Combined sewer systems are designed to overflow directly to surface waters when their design capacity is exceeded. These “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs) occur infrequently; others may occur every time it rains. Because CSOs contain raw sewage and add pathogens, solids, debris, and toxic pollutants to receiving waters, CSOs can create serious public health and water quality concerns.

Meanwhile, federal appropriations for the CWSRF have declined in the past decade. Between FY 1998 and FY 2004, Congress appropriated an average of $1.35 billion for the program. But the funding was cut to $1.09 billion in FY 2005, to $900 million in FY 2006, to $1.084 billion in FY 2007, and to $689 million in FY 2008.

Treatment plant costs have risen sharply in recent years: the average per capita cost for wastewater treatment among 132 public agencies in 2004 was $171, an increase of approximately 20 percent from the $143 per capita cost in 1995, according to a survey by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA).

At the same time, federal and state grants and loans declined from 10.6 percent to 5.9 percent of total publicly owned treatment plant revenues between 1992 and 2004, said NACWA. Thus more of the cost of providing wastewater treatment is falling upon local ratepayers, who already are paying nearly three-quarters of the cost through user fees and local bond issues. Two-thirds of all capital improvements to local treatment plants were financed by debt in 2004, said NACWA, while only 1.2 percent of all capital costs was provided by federal or state grants. This does not even include the expenditures for repairs and upgrades to buried infrastructure; namely, collection system and transmission piping and pumping stations.

This financing trend – should it continue – will have a large impact on the rates people will pay for sewer service moving forward. To give a local example, the Erie County Division of Sewerage Management’s capital improvements plan estimates close to $120 million to be spentin the next ten to fifteen years to address its aging treatment plants, pumping stations, and buried piping. This amount is merely to maintain a similar level of service and does not include prospective regulatory restrictions and development, both of which likely will require additional upgrades. Unfunded regulatory mandates are on the horizon; in the last year, the Erie County Division of Sewerage Management has received three draft SPDES permits that present additional restrictions. If these permits are implemented as is, significant capital improvements to existing facilities will be required. Without federal and/or state funding, this burden solely falls on the local ratepayers.

Moreover, the Clean Water Act has fared less well in the control of nonpoint-sources of pollutants under section 319. That program, enacted in 1987, was designed to reduce the discharge of pollutants from nonpoint sources through state-developed “management programs” and was funded by EPA grants to carry out the state programs.

Section 319 provides for states to prepare reports and propose management plans for the control of nonpoint-source pollution for approval by EPA, and encourages the development of plans on a watershed-by-watershed basis.

States with approved management programs are eligible, on a cost-sharing basis, for federal grants to assist in the implementation of the program. Grants are also available to states with approved plans to assist the states in carrying out ground water quality protection activities which will advance the state toward the implementation of a comprehensive nonpoint source pollution control program.

But the EPA reports that, of the nation’s 3.3 million water bodies (which include all river “reaches” located between two tributaries, lakes, and reservoirs), only 26 individual impaired water bodies or water-body segments have been “partially or fully restored” as a result of efforts under section 319. That’s about one one-hundred thousandth of all impaired U.S. water bodies. “Nonpoint source pollution is the leading remaining cause of water quality problems. The effects of nonpoint source pollutants on specific waters vary and may not always be fully assessed,” the EPA explains.

One of the greatest challenges for the future of wastewater treatment lies in the industry’s ability to manage the increased demand for sewage treatment caused by population growth.

In early 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 301 million people living in the United States. That number is expected to reach 400 million within the next 50 years. Although American families today are smaller, many are moving further from urban areas into remoter suburbs and rural areas.

In 2004, the EPA reported that one-third of new housing developments will manage their sewage through septic systems (known as “on-site treatment”) due to the increasing decentralization of the U.S. population.

Paradoxically, increasing urbanization, as well as the continued presence of agricultural runoff, will provide additional sources of pollution not controlled by centralized wastewater treatment, according to the agency.

Both trends argue for a greater reliance on the use of regional wastewater treatment systems to ensure that discharges are treated and released from a single point-source under the successful NPDES program. This means that it is quite likely that the demand for federal financial assistance for new wastewater treatment systems will continue to grow as well.

Locally, our sewer service providers are beginning to work together to find regional solutions to tackle individual problems in their sewer systems and by default, improve water quality in a more fiscally conscious manner. Western New York municipalities have realized the benefits of a watershed based approach – an approach that the EPA has cited is the most cost effective method to address water quality issues. Several municipalities have relinquished control of their sewer systems to County sewer providers to eliminate the duplication of services and allow for localized, smaller scale watershed approaches to improve water quality and lessen financial impacts through economies of scale. Municipal entities are also re-evaluating contractual arrangements and are collaborating to more cost effectively address sanitary sewer overflows and other sewer issues.

Population growth not only adds to the volume of wastewater that must be treated but also increases the volume of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) that is discharged to surface water. Nitrogen that is discharged from treatment plants causes excessive growth of microscopic Phytoplankton in salt water systems, as well as fresh water toxicity. The growth and ultimate decomposition of these organisms result in decreased concentrations of dissolved oxygen available for fish and shellfish, resulting in fish kills, a decrease in the abundance of fish, and a decline within and among species. Many treatment plants in the U.S. are also required to remove nitrogen and phosphorous within the treatment process.

The added capital cost of nutrient removal at treatment plants is significant. Moreover, scientists are now evaluating the impact of pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other trace chemicals that might go unchanged through a treatment plant. Many of these are classified as endocrine disruptors, and their effects are well documented. No one knows what the financial impact will be if we have to remove trace chemical compounds.

Parts of the United States are experiencing water shortages already. Population growth will significantly increase the demand for water and cause further shortages. We now have to look at treating wastewater to a level sufficient to allow for its direct reuse. The cost of this will be staggering, not only in new capital investment but in operating and maintenance costs as well. But this investment must be made to ensure reliable sources of safe drinking-water.

Global climate change, resulting in higher temperatures and rising water elevations, also may produce new costs and challenges. Rising water levels will bring about the need for dikes, levees, and other protective measures. In addition, higher water levels may require the buildingor rebuilding of plants now located in coastal areas to levels above the existing floodplain elevations.

Thank you, Congressman Higgins, for this opportunity to appear today. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.