Aging sewer, water infrastructure will take billions to upgrade

Sunday, January 20, 2008
Randy Bartels, left, and Frank Raley, of Dutch Enterprises, prepared to extend a pipe along the force main of Oak Ridge's wastewater collection and treatment system along Route D on Thursday. A trencher continued the line in the background. The new system will serve more than 100 residences in the village. (Kit Doyle)

Oak Ridge Mayor Don England knows the difficulties of providing sewer service for a small town.

For six years his city, population 202 according to the 2000 U.S. Census, has worked to get the funding to install a nearly $2 million sewer system.

The city was incorporated in 1862. Since then homes have used septic tanks, maligned by public health officials for their propensity to overfill or break, leaking contaminants into the ground.

Help came in the form of funding -- hundreds of thousands in grants and low-interest bonds from government sources -- and expertise to make the project possible.

"We could never attempt to do this on our own," England said about assistance from the government and from private engineering firms. Small-town government boards have few engineers.

Dutch Enterprises workers searched for water lines while readying Oak Ridge for a new wastewater collection and treatment system Thursday along Route E in Oak Ridge.

Efforts similar to Oak Ridge's overhaul of its infrastructure are constantly taking place in communities across the country. So are efforts to maintain and upgrade aging sewer and drinking water systems.

And regulatory agencies are sending up red flags that it will cost billions of dollars to address in the coming decades. While last year's Minneapolis, Minn., bridge collapse highlighted the need to upgrade highways, regulators say the need in public drinking water and sanitation has gone largely unnoticed.

"For generations, Americans have enjoyed the benefits of a system that provides clean, safe and inexpensive water. We've taken it for granted -- from the drinking water that automatically appears when we turn on our taps, to the water that allows us to flush our toilets, to our local water bodies where we fish and swim," said the Environmental Protection Agency's Kris Lancaster via e-mail. Lancaster is a spokesman for the EPA's Region 7, which covers Missouri and four other states.

EPA's report

A report issued Wednesday by the EPA estimates $202.5 billion nationally will need to be spent to control wastewater pollution for the next 20 years. Of that estimate, $134.4 billion is needed for wastewater treatment and collection systems, $54.8 billion to fix sewer overflow problems and $9 billion for storm-water management.

The force main of Oak Ridge's new wastewater collection and treatment system sat awaiting the trencher to extend its length Thursday along Route D in Oak Ridge. (Kit Doyle)

The report, based on data from 2004, says $17 billion of that cost is needed for upgrading systems in small communities like those in Southeast Missouri.

In Missouri, $11.7 billion will be needed to maintain and upgrade drinking water and sewer systems over the next 20 years, according to estimates from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. And currently, the EPA and DNR say, the funding just isn't there.

'Only going to get worse'

But as pipes installed just after World War II or before start to reach the end of their useful lives, massive overhauls are needed. And places like Oak Ridge will have to find ways to fund and construct systems from scratch.

"This is a real big deal that's going to be facing a lot of communities in the not too distant future," said Chauncy Buchheit, executive director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission. "... And it's only going to get worse, not better. There's not enough funding out there to take care of it."

Buchheit's office uses significant resources every year to help small communities like Oak Ridge meet infrastructure challenges. The commission's services are needed because small communities lack the expertise to plan those projects or to navigate the bureaucratic channels to find the funding they need.

In cities around the area, the need for some significant form of sewer or drinking water system work comes up frequently in talks about public service needs. Leaders in Scott City and Chaffee have in recent months talked about the need to upgrade their sewer systems, and Scott City built a new water treatment plant a few years ago to improve its delivery system.

Jackson may need a new drinking water treatment plant in the next few years, said city administrator Jim Roach, at a cost of millions. The city's plant is around 50 years old and is nearing the end of its life despite frequent upgrades over the years.

Cape Girardeau is facing millions in upgrades to its own drinking water and sewage treatment systems over the next few years. The biggest expense facing the city in upgrading its sewer system is the likely need to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant. Right now that cost is estimated at around $15 million.

Tim Gramling, director of Cape Girardeau's public works department, said that figure isn't set in stone, and the cost could be higher or lower. Added to that is the cost of ongoing maintenance.

Last year, Cape Girardeau spent $312,000 on one project to replace old, leaking sewer pipes.

The challenge, Roach said, is convincing the public to fund water and sewer projects.

"The public doesn't really see it -- they can't see the lines, they don't know where the sewage treatment plant is at and if they do, they don't want to see it," Roach said. "... What they do see is when they turn the faucet on they see clean drinking water ... and they know when they flush the commode whether it works or not.

"It's not as visible as a street or a building or a park, so it's a little harder issue to get across the need."

Joe Boland helps administer federal funds for state wastewater projects as part of the DNR's State Revolving Fund. Last year that fund spent $110 million in loans and grants for such projects, but Boland said more funding will be needed.

"Drinking water and especially wastewater are two very important infrastructures we all take for granted," Boland said. "Everybody thinks they ought to get water and wastewater for free."

Until there's an interruption in service, Boland said, most people don't even think about where clean water and sewer service comes from, or what kind of condition those systems are in.

But the consequences of systems not functioning properly are severe. A working system cleans water of pathogens and chemicals harmful to humans and pets.

Sanitation systems keep pathogens and chemicals from entering the environment.

Billion of overflow gallons

But in their current condition, those sanitation systems aren't keeping enough of those harmful organisms and substances isolated from ecosystems and people.

Every year, billions of gallons of sewer overflow -- untreated sewage that leaves the system -- find their way into the environment in EPA Region 7's five-state area, said EPA specialist Tony Petruska.

Earlier this year regulatory agencies sued the St. Louis government for overflows, alleging 500 million gallons of overflow between Jan. 1, 2000, and Dec. 31, 2005.

"If you look at EPA's priorities, overflows out of sewers constantly rise to the top," Petruska said.

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