A flood of water-quality initiatives

July 2011 » Departments » COMMENT
Bob Drake

Between late April and early June, at least six major initiatives involving stormwater and wastewater made headlines nationally and in two of the nation—€™s largest cities:

1) The Obama administration released a national clean water framework that includes draft federal guidance to clarify which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act (CWA) nationwide, partnerships and programs to improve water quality and water efficiency, and initiatives to restore rivers and critical watersheds. Part of the plan is focused on restoring important water bodies, including the Chesapeake Bay, California Bay-Delta, Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, and Everglades (see —€œNPDES update: Watershed pollution diets—€ on page 20 for a related story).

2) The Water Environment Federation—€™s board of trustees approved a revised position on stormwater management that recommends updating regulations under the CWA that oversee stormwater-generated flows and outlines several recommendations for improved stormwater management including use of a volume-based approach for stormwater treatment, support of green infrastructure, flexibility in the stormwater regulatory framework, consideration of climate change, and integration of a watershed-based approach into permitting (see page 18).

3) A coalition of conservation groups filed a federal lawsuit to stop the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Chicago from dumping raw sewage mixed with stormwater into the Chicago River system. Less than a week later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notified the state of Illinois that water quality standards for portions of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers must be upgraded, likely requiring the MWRD to disinfect sewage discharged into the waterway system from its North Side and Calumet treatment plants. Subsequently, the MWRD adopted a policy to disinfect effluent discharged from both plants at an estimated cost of $240 million for construction and $26 million per year for maintenance and operation.

4) The Sustainable Water Infrastructure Investment Act of 2011 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives with the intent to leverage private capital to repair water infrastructure. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate. If passed, the bill would remove state volume caps on private activity bonds for water and wastewater financing, which the sponsors said would allow water systems easier access to capital.

5) The Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate; a companion bill was introduced in the House (see page 14). The legislation would require the EPA—€™s Office of Water to promote and coordinate the use of green infrastructure for stormwater management and accept green stormwater designs in its permitting and enforcement activities. The legislation also would establish as many as five regional centers of excellence to research and develop new stormwater management techniques.

6) The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) signed an agreement that allows the PWD to implement a strategy that uses green stormwater infrastructure to reduce combined sewer overflows substantially —€” an estimated $2 billion expenditure during the next 25 years (see page 14). The plan also includes wastewater treatment facility enhancements and pipe renewal and replacement (see a related story on page 54: —€œDual focus on wastewater.—€)

So what does all of this mean for civil engineers? For one thing, it—€™s time to become adept —€” if you aren—€™t already —€” at using green infrastructure technologies and watershed-based approaches for stormwater and wastewater management. Cities, water utilities, public agencies, and developers will be looking for creative and functional designs, as well as permitting and funding assistance, to respond to increasing demands for improved water quality.


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