TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Twice in recent summers, visitors to parts of Michigan’s western coast were greeted by mounds of garbage strewn along miles of sandy beach: plastic bottles, eating utensils, food wrappers, even hypodermic syringes.
At least some of the rubbish had drifted across Lake Michigan from Milwaukee, a vivid reminder that many cities still flush nasty stuff into streams and lakes during heavy storms, fouling the waters with bacteria and viruses that can make people seriously ill.
Thousands of overflows from sewage systems that collect storm water and wastewater are believed to occur each year. Regulators and environmentalists want them stopped, and since the late 1990s the Environmental Protection Agency or state officials have reached legal agreements with more than 40 cities or counties — Atlanta, Los Angeles, Baltimore, St. Louis and Indianapolis among them — to improve wastewater systems that in some cases are a century old. Costs are reaching hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.
But the price of progress is becoming too high for local governments, with the bad economy cutting into tax revenues and residents rebelling against higher water and sewer rates. Responding to pleas for leniency, the Obama administration is promising more flexibility as hard-pressed cities look for less conventional and cheaper ways to reduce overflows.
“The current economic times make the need for sensible and effective approaches even more pressing,” said an October memo to EPA regional offices from Nancy Stoner, who runs the agency’s water policy office, and Cynthia Giles, chief of enforcement. They said EPA staffers would work out details of the new policy.
It won’t be easy, considering the costs and inflamed emotions involved.
Carol Rodwell and neighbors carted away 18 bags of garbage from a 400-foot stretch of Lake Michigan frontage near Ludington after last year’s trash flotilla. She was shocked to learn that federal law lets cities discharge untreated sewage when their plants and storage facilities are flooded.
“It was maddening that they had permission to do this and we had to live with the consequences,” Rodwell said.
Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee sewage system, insisted it was only partly to blame, saying some of the rubbish probably came from trash cans or dumpsters swamped when the area got about 9 inches of rain in a single day.
Milwaukee has spent $4 billion since the 1980s improving its sewer system, Shafer said. It now has 521 million gallons of storage capacity in underground tunnels. Since the mid-1990s, less than 2 percent of the water entering the system each year has been released without treatment.
The ultimate goal is zero overflows, but officials don’t expect to get there until about 2035 because it will require being able to handle the kind of flooding that previously happened rarely but is becoming more common.
“It gets a lot more expensive to get that last drop,” Shafer said. “The way the economy is today, you have to balance that cost with all the other needs we have. You don’t want to bankrupt a community.”
One partial solution gaining popularity with cities is “green infrastructure” — natural and man-made features that enable more water to soak into the ground instead of washing into storm drains and creeks. Stoner and Giles of EPA instructed field staff last year to incorporate green features into storm water and sewer permits as much as possible.
Examples would include requiring office buildings to cover flat roofs with plants, using permeable pavement on roads and parking lots, and increasing parkland and urban green space.
Milwaukee is encouraging residents to use rain barrels and plant “rain gardens,” which have wildflowers and deep-rooted vegetation particularly suited to absorbing excess water.
Indianapolis last year renegotiated an earlier deal with EPA that cuts the city’s costs by hundreds of millions through greater use of green features, Mayor Greg Ballard said.
A new ordinance in Santa Monica, Calif., orders building developers to capture the first three-quarters of an inch of rainwater in a storm and encourages meeting the requirement with green infrastructure. Cleveland has pledged to spend $42 million over eight years on green projects, said Jennifer Elting, spokeswoman for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.
An assortment of measures are required in Chicago under a deal struck with EPA this month that sets deadlines for completing a gigantic tunnel and reservoir project, which has lagged since work began nearly 40 years despite repeated sewer overflows.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has pressured EPA to give cities more time and options for limiting overflows. Testifying before Congress this month, Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle said the agency’s embrace of green infrastructure was a welcome change from a heavy-handed approach that demanded big-ticket investments in conventional water treatment equipment.
“Using enforcement actions as the default option sends the message via the mass media to our citizens that mayors are not trustworthy, and that they condone water pollution,” Suttle said.
The federal government should help struggling cities pay for sewer improvements but shouldn’t let them off the hook for overflows, said Lyman Welch, water quality program manager with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based environmental group.
“Cities have had decades to deal with this problem,” Welch said. “We need firm deadlines and we need strong enforcement so it can finally be solved.”