IG questions water-quality payoff from pricey sewer upgrades

By Annie Snider | 09/17/2015 01:09 PM EDT

It’s unclear whether the billions of dollars that U.S. EPA has required cities to invest in sewer upgrades are yielding water quality improvements, the agency’s inspector general concludes in a new report.

It’s unclear whether the billions of dollars that U.S. EPA has required cities to invest in sewer upgrades are yielding water quality improvements, the agency’s inspector general concludes in a new report.

At issue is the EPA crackdown on combined sewer systems that carry both stormwater and sewage. Heavy rains overwhelm such systems, flushing 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater into rivers, lakes and estuaries every year, EPA says.

The agency has been working since 1998 to curb so-called combined sewer overflows (CSOs) by forcing cities to bring their sewer systems into compliance, often through the form of a judicial consent decree and expensive upgrades. EPA estimates communities are spending a total of $32 billion a year on such efforts, typically passing costs along to utility customers in rate increases.


But in a report released yesterday, EPA’s Office of Inspector General said there’s scant evidence that costly sewer upgrades required by consent decrees are improving water quality.

"Without reviewing available data on water quality, it is unknown whether billions of dollars and decades of work put into CSO system changes have, in fact, led to the anticipated environmental improvements that the EPA has reported to Congress and the public in its annual results," the report says.

The OIG did find that communities were generally meeting the critical milestones laid out in their consent decrees, but that EPA needs to do a better job of analyzing and tracking this interim work. Because the decrees cover years’ worth of work — on average, they span 10 years — interim milestones are key to ensuring that they remain on track for the end goals.

The OIG also called for a better tracking system to improve oversight of consent decrees’ implementation and results.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents local sewer authorities around the country, said the report "hit the nail on the head."

"As the report itself acknowledges, America’s public clean water utilities and the communities they serve are spending over $32 billion to address sewer overflows and are doing a great job in making progress," Adam Krantz, the group’s CEO, said in a statement. "But our public agency members also have a responsibility to their communities and their ratepayers to demonstrate that these massive investments are making meaningful environmental progress, and today’s Inspector General report makes clear EPA has that responsibility as well."

Sewer officials and the communities they work for have long been frustrated by the hefty price tag associated with consent decrees. They hope that a bigger focus on environmental results will encourage regulators to allow more flexibility in how to deal with the overflows.

Although EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance worked with the OIG to come up with solutions to resolve concerns raised by the report, the office chief took issue with some of the report’s conclusions.

In a memo to Inspector General Arthur Elkins, Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles said correlating reductions in the number of sewer overflows with water quality improvements is technically tricky. That’s because sewage discharges tend to happen during heavy rains and may not show up as clearly when measuring ambient water quality at other times. Moreover, during storms, plenty else is getting washed into waterways, too; for instance, from farm field runoff and stormwater outfalls.

That’s why her office has focused on tracking and reducing the number of overflow events, Giles wrote. And she emphasized that sewer overflows don’t just contribute pollutants that harm water quality, they also add pathogens that can endanger human health.

"Reducing discharges of raw sewage and contaminated stormwater into our nation’s waters will certainly minimize exposure to pathogens and other health-threatening contamination," she wrote. "Multiple studies have confirmed both the seriousness of the present exposure pathways and the benefit from reducing that pollution loading."

Moreover, Giles argued that, because only a handful of consent decrees have reached completion so far, and the fact that improvements often don’t come online until construction is complete, looking at water quality improvements at this point would not be "a reliable or relevant measure of success."