What a Pandora's box the Clean Water Act of 1972 opened for stewards of the nation's water.
In a way, your fate was inevitable. After World War II, energy was dirt cheap, the United States became a manufacturing powerhouse, and industry and development trumped the environment. We regarded the nation's watersheds as limitless sponges that would suck up the byproducts of all this growth.
But of course they couldn't. After the Vietnam War and the oil embargo forced us to recognize America's place in the world, we looked inward—and realized we'd been poisoning ourselves.
Keeping up with federal water-pollution standards wasn't too onerous in the 1970s, when events like Earth Day made it politically expedient to turn on the federal spigot. Public agencies had a funding source beyond taxes or user fees they could use to conduct the infiltration and inflow studies the Clean Water Act initially required.
But standards keep getting tougher, and the federal flow dropped to a trickle. First the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened up what wastewater can contain. Now it's stormwater. Cities and counties are creating stormwater utilities to pay for the cleanup.
Just keeping up with what information must be submitted—and how and when—is a full-time job. There are rules for combined sewer overflows (CSOs), sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs), and municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s); different timelines for different-sized cities. In essence, you're being required to measure what you'll later be monitored for.
Oh, and did we mention the antiquity of the infrastructure you're working with to meet these standards?
And the time, energy, and money required to decide—and then justify—whether to scrap the old system and build anew, or just replace the most egregious failures?
And that you are responsible for educating the public about what they can and cannot put on their lawns, down their sinks, and on their driveways?
Little wonder then, that a recent PUBLIC WORKS survey showed that wastewater—followed closely by stormwater—represents the greatest challenge for public agencies.
We've assembled this special series of articles on water, waste-water, and stormwater systems to help you navigate the waters of requirements.
You'll learn about new technology for wastewater treatment plants (page 26), how to write a plan for municipal water system growth (page 36), what's being done to reroute stormwater in Florida (page 42), and how to manage all that buried infrastructure (page 32).
Welcome to PW Solutions: WaterWorks, an in-depth look at how you're caring for our nation's most precious resource.
— The editors of PUBLIC WORKS