Underfunding Threatens Our Clean Water | Food & Water Watch
Victory! Farm Bureau case challenging EPA’s right to share factory farm data dismissed. more wins »

Stay Informed

Sign up for email to learn how you can protect food and water in your community.

   Please leave this field empty

Food & Water Watch provided skilled activists to help us organize and amplify our voices against fracking in Monterey County, California. Their presence brought added credibility and effectiveness in educating and activating local residents to preserve our precious agriculture and water resources. Food & Water Watch understands that on-the-ground grassroots organizing is essential to success.  
Luana Conley
July 6th, 2007

Underfunding Threatens Our Clean Water

Download the PDF File

It is easy to forget what it takes to have clean water and sewage services in our homes. The thousands of miles of water pipes and sewer lines hidden under our streets ensure that clean water flows from our faucets and that sewage is safely transported to treatment facilities to eliminate harmful pathogens and chemicals. But that entire water and sewer infrastructure is aging and deteriorating, which threatens public health and the environment.

To solve this problem, the federal government should increase investment in the maintenance and repair of our water and sewer systems. Over the past 20 years, local governments have not been able to keep up with the improvements needed to these vital public services because of insufficient and inconsistent funding from the federal government. We must ensure a future with plenty of clean water and a healthy environment. Therefore, it is time to establish a national trust fund for water.

Strained Water and Sewer Systems

Most of the primary water pipes and sewer lines in this country were built during the late 1800s, the 1920s, and in the years immediately following World War II.1 About 72,000 miles of the nation‚ main water distribution pipes are more than 80 years old.2 These pipes are wearing out under the weight of age, improper maintenance, and a growing population.

Worn out and overburdened sewer systems are malfunctioning and leaking waste into our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans at an increasing rate. These incidents are especially common in older sewer systems that collect both municipal sewage and storm water runoff. During moderate to heavy rainfalls, the volume of sewage and storm water can exceed the capacity of the sewer system, which discharges the excess untreated sewage, including garbage, syringes, tampon applicators, and toxic industrial waste , into the nearest body of water. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1.28 trillion gallons of raw sewage are discharged by overflows from these sewer systems each year3, requiring $50.6 billion to clean up.4

Even the newer sewer systems, which do not collect storm water, do sometimes overflow because of broken pipes or mechanical problems caused by the general wear and tear on system pumps, valves, and lifts. EPA estimates that such failures in the systems discharge between three and 10 billion gallons of raw sewage each year.5

Sewage Overflows Increasing

Several factors explain the anticipated increase in sewer overflows in coming years. All of these factors could be addressed with adequate funding.

Our aging sewer systems are deteriorating, and will continue to do so due to inadequate investment in maintenance. Water and sewer pipes require routine cleaning and repair from the build up of debris, sediment, and grease that can cause blockages in the system over time. Mechanical equipment requires regular cleaning and maintenance to ensure proper functioning.6 Furthermore, most of the water system and distribution pipes will reach the end of their expected life span in the next 30 years.7

Population growth in communities across the country is overwhelming many systems with quantities of waste that exceed their carrying capacity. When overflows occur in these communities, an increasing number of people are exposed to the raw sewage.

Finally, global climate change is expected to increase the number of severe weather events in some regions of the country. That translates into heavy rainstorms that overflow underfunded and ill-equipped sewer systems.8

Human Health Risks

In 1854, John Snow discovered that water contaminated with sewage at the Broad Street pump caused the cholera epidemic in London. Since that time, we have known that raw sewage spreads disease among humans. Indeed, the development of sewer infrastructure has been one of the greatest public health advances. However, in the United States today, people are continuing to come in contact with the untreated sewage from sewer overflows.

In 2005, public health agencies issued more than 20,000 warnings against swimming on U.S. coastal beaches, mostly due to elevated bacteria levels. Sewage overflows are a leading cause of such advisories and closures, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.9 EPA estimates that swimming in water contaminated with raw sewage from overflows sickens 1.8 million to 3.5 million people each year.10

People can also ingest pathogens from untreated sewage in their drinking water. Multiple U.S. communities depend on the same waterway, so one community‚ sewage overflow may be upstream from another‚ drinking water supply. In fact, many sewage discharge pipes are located relatively close to drinking water sources. In Michigan, for example, they are less than five miles apart. Lake Erie is another water source polluted with untreated sewage.11 In 2005, sewage overflows from 52 communities spewed 10.9 billion gallons of untreated sewage into Lake Erie, the drinking water source for the city of Buffalo.12

But contamination from sewage overflows seeping into groundwater is also an important human health issue. In fact, 100 million people nationwide rely on underground sources for drinking water.13

Bacteria, viruses, and parasites present in untreated sewage can cause illnesses such as respiratory, throat, ear, or nose infections, and gastrointestinal problems. Although these ailments may be relatively minor for healthy adults, vulnerable populations, including infants, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, may experience more severe illness.

Finally, in the age of newly emerging diseases, sewage overflows could present an even more serious disease outbreak. Untreated hospital waste can provide a route for spreading new pathogens, as well as strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a growing public health concern.14

The National Research Council predicts more water-borne disease outbreaks unless we make “substantial investments” in improving our water and sewer storage and distribution systems.15

Sewage Overflows Harm the Environment

Sewage overflows that release large amounts of untreated sewage into water estuaries also threaten wildlife and natural habitats.

When untreated sewage is released into waterways, microorganisms feed upon it and, in the process, deplete oxygen in the water. Lack of oxygen can harm or kill other wildlife in the water.16

For example, the state of North Carolina found that sewage overflows caused 17 fish kills between 1997 and 2001, killing 40 to 3,500 fish per incident.17 A 2.37 million gallon sewage overflow in Camp Pendleton, California lasted eight days and killed 320 fish, 67 shrimp, one snail, and one bird. On the other hand, improving sewer infrastructure has proven to benefit wildlife.18 In Chicago, during the 1970s and 1980s, the city improved its sewer system by controlling and decreasing overflows from systems that collected both storm water runoff and sewage and by dechlorinating wastewater at the treatment plant. The results were dramatic: From 1974, before the improvements, to 2001, after they had been implemented, the number of fish species in the Chicago and Clumet River System increased six-fold.19

Excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous in untreated sewage also endanger wildlife, particularly in estuaries. Large quantities of these nutrients can spawn algal blooms, which deplete oxygen and can cause fish kills and dead zones‚ regions that pollution has rendered incapable of supporting life. Conventional sewage treatment plants remove up to 63 percent of nitrogen and 65 percent of phosphorous from sewage. And new technologies that use biological nutrients can remove even more.20

Finally, toxic chemicals, including heavy metals, antibiotics and other drugs, and substances used to make plastic commonly show up in industrial, commercial, institutional, and household waste. Some of these toxic chemicals are pretreated before entry into the sewer system. Communities intend to further treat this waste, but when overflows occur be-fore the sewage reaches the treatment facility, potentially hazardous chemicals are released into the environment.21

Researchers have found that chemicals at the concentration present in sewage can disrupt endocrine function in fish.22 They might cause similar problems in humans. The endocrine glands produce and regulate hormones that manage our vital functions, including reproduction, breathing, and thinking. Disrupting these bodily processes in humans can lead to birth defects, cancer, or developmental problems in babies and children.23 Given the potential negative health and environmental risks from endocrine disruptors, now is the time to invest in technology that removes them from sewage.

What Can We Do?

EPA estimates that proper maintenance of the sewer systems (those that do not collect storm water runoff) could prevent 90 percent of all overflows.24 It will take billions of dollars of investment to provide this level of maintenance and the other improvements to clean water infrastructure in coming years.

Municipalities already invest $63 billion a year for clean water, second only to their spending on education. Meanwhile, the federal share of funding for water and sewer systems declined from 78 percent in 1973 to 3 percent today.25 Therefore, each year we fall more than $20 billion short of what is needed to maintain our public water and sewer systems.

This is why Congress should establish a clean water trust fund that would give communities the financial help they need to invest in healthy and safe drinking water for every American and for future generations. Such a fund also would protect wildlife and maintain healthy ecosystems.

A majority (83 percent) of Americans say they would support legislation in Congress to establish a national trust fund for clean water.26

It is time to plan ahead for future generations and create a dedicated source of public funding so that communities across America can keep their water and the environment clean and safe.

1 Water Infrastructure Network.
2 “Community Water Systems Survey, 2000.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, December 2002, p.14.
32001 Report to Congress: Implementation and Enforcement of the Combined Sewer Overflow Control Policy.” Office of Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, December 2001.
4Clean Watershed Needs Survey 2000, Report to Congress.” Office of Wastewater Management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, August 2003.
5 “Report to Congress on the Impact and Control of CSOs and SSOs.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, August 2004, p. ES-5.
6SSO Factsheet: Why Control Sanitary Sewer Overflows?” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
7 “Drinking Water Distribution Systems.” National Research Council, Washington, DC, 2006, p.1.
8 “Swimming in Sewage.” National Resources Defense Council, February 2004, p. 5.
9 “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches.” Natural Resources Defense Council, July 2006.
10 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit Requirements for Municipal Sanitary Sewer Collection Systems, Municipal Satellite Collection Systems, and Sanitary Sewer Overflows, January 4, 2001.
11 “Swimming in Sewage.” op. cit., p. 1.
12 “Sewage Overflow: Billions of Gallons of Sewage Contaminate Lake Erie.” Environment Ohio and Environment Ohio Research and Policy Center, Columbus, Ohio, May 2007.
13 Rose, JB et al. “Microbial Pollutants in Our Nation‚ Waters: Environmental and Public Health Issues.” American Society for Microbiology, Washington, DC, 1999. p. 8.
14 “Swimming in Sewage.” op. cit., p. 9-11.
15 “Drinking Water Distribution Systems: Assessing and Reducing Risks.” op. cit.
16 “Report to Congress on the Impact and Control of CSOs and SSOs.” op. cit., p. 5-17.
17Fish Kill Event Update.” North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, 2003.
18 “Report to Congress on the Impact and Control of CSOs and SSOs.” op. cit., p. 5-18.
19 “A Study of the Fisheries Resources and Water Quality in the Chicago Waterway System 1974 Through 1996.” Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Chicago, IL, June 1998.
20 “Managing Wastewater in Coastal Urban Areas.” National Research Council, Washington, DC, 1993. p. 57.
21 33 U.S.C. Sec.1317(b), “Toxic and pretreatment effluent standards.”
22 Snyder, Shane. “Endocrine disruptors as water contaminants: Toxicological implications for humans and wildlife.” Southwest Hydrology: p. 14, Nov/Dec 2003.
23 Daly, Gay. “Bad Chemistry.” OnEarth (published by the Natural Resources Defense Council), Winter 2006.
24 “Swimming in Sewage.” op. cit., p. 2.
25 Ken Kirk, Executive Director, National Association of Clean Water Agencies, presentation at EPA funding conference, “Paying for Sustainable Water Infrastructure,” Atlanta, GA, March, 2007.
26 Luntz Research Companies/Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, Clean Water Trust Fund Memo, February 2004.