Tag Archives: infrastructure

What’s the Big Idea? (2)

In the prior “Big Idea” post, I started with the idea that the traditional view of the water cycle is no longer accurate.  To the classic four phases – precipitation, flow, evaporation, and condensation – we need to add a fifth.  That’s mankind’s use and pollution of the 1% of the world’s water that’s available in fresh, liquid form.

The sheer scale of our water use is mind-boggling.  In the U.S. alone, our household use totals 32 billion gallons per day.  And that’s only about one-eighth of the total volume we use; much more is used in thermoelectric power plants, manufacturing, irrigation, and mining. 

Point to consider: It all has to get cleaned up before we use it — and again after we use it.

More big numbers: Here in the U.S., we use 1.2 million miles of pipe to bring us clean water.  How far is that?  It’s as if we pumped our 32 billion gallons a day to the moon, then back, then back up to the moon and back to Earth again, and yet again up to the moon.  (You can also think of it as 26 miles of water pipe for every mile of Interstate highway we have.)

For wastewater, we in the U.S. use 750,000 miles of public sewer lines and 500,000 miles of additional lines connecting private property to public sewer lines.  Picture the same illustration, except that it’s sewage moving through the pipe.

The moon doesn’t want our sewage, any more than our rivers do.  So, we clean that water up in the 14,748 publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities that process what comes through those pipes.  As my uncle used to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Or maybe not.”

Next: More mind-boggling examples of water/wastewater infrastructure scale. Oh, and big money.

Source for data: American Society of Civil Engineers; Bipartisan Policy Center.

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

“Brave Little State” Explores CSOs

On May 5, Vermont Public Radio released a new podcast in its series “Brave Little State,” focusing on the challenges of combined sewer overflows (CSOs).  The feature stemmed from a question offered by Winooski resident Mike Brown, who asked “Why do we have pollution in Lake Champlain, and what can we do about it?”

His question triggered a month-long investigation by reporters Angela Evancie and Taylor Dobbs and resulted in a 28-minute program that describes CSOs – what they are, what causes them, and why they’re so hard to manage – and explores the problem of aging water/wastewater infrastructure.

Led by Jeff Wennberg, Commissioner of Public Works for Rutland City, the team visited one of Rutland’s four CSO outflow stations to learn more about the technologies and practices affecting combined stormwater/wastewater systems. The Rutland system was expanded to limit overflows to about two heavy precipitation events per year.  However, due to changing weather patterns and the growth of the region’s developed landscape, stormwater volume has increased dramatically.  The system now experiences 20 to 30 CSO events per year.

Wennberg, who would prefer to see no more than one every five years, emphasized that his department watches weather reports with extreme vigilance – and, often, extreme anxiety. Even so, he defended combined sewers as doing a superb job, saying that overflows constitute only a tiny proportion of the enormous amount of urban stormwater these systems treat.

Wennberg believes a three-pronged approach is needed to reduce CSOs: “green” infrastructure that encourages infiltration; “grey” infrastructure in the form of large, temporary holding tanks; and “data” infrastructure — technologies capable of rapidly-adaptive responses to unpredictable flow volumes.

As all operators know, it all comes down to “Who’s going to pay for it, and how soon?” Wennberg said.  That question brought the reporters to the Statehouse, where they interviewed Rep. David Deen, chair of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee.  Deen explained that declining federal funding has limited the state’s ability to pay for water quality management improvements.

He also said that the state’s “best bang for the buck” would be investment in reducing runoff from agricultural lands and paved surfaces, which contribute the majority of phosphorous pollution.  Dobbs reiterated that CSOs from municipal systems contribute only 4% of Lake Champlain’s phosphorous load.

The feature aired several times during May, and you can hear it in its entirety, or read a transcript, at http://digital.vpr.net/post/what-can-be-done-about-vermonts-aging-sewer-systems#stream/6