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Rehabilitation and Action Plan: Improving Wastewater Management for the Future

Overview of Great Lakes Wastewater Management
The Great Lakes Watershed
History of U.S. Wastewater Management
Risks and Problems
Milwaukee, WI
Chicago, IL
Detroit, MI
Citizen Groups
Rehabilitation and Action Plan

               In each of the case studies discussed in this website, we see successes (pros) and failures (cons) among distinct styles of wastewater management. When sewer systems were first being installed and developed in the United States, engineers carefully studied European cities with existing infrastructure and transferred the technology and knowledge base to urban centers in the U.S. (Burian et. al, 41). Today, engineers need only to look at other models within the U.S. and again apply a transfer of technology and knowledge. Each city uses slightly different methods, though primarily under an overall system of centralized, combined or separated sewerage. Engineers and urban planners can study the successes and failures of infrastructure in nearby cities when working to improve wastewater management models.

            One model that researchers may want to look at is the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant in Austin, Texas. This facility “integrates recycling urban wastes with the conservation, protection, and restoration of Austin’s ecology” (Hornsby). This plant is not, itself, a wastewater plant, but it receives all of the biosolids from Austin’s wastewater plants. These biosolids are then treated and recycled and turned into “Dillo-Dirt,” “a quality soil amendment made from recycled materials” (Hornsby). This helps to return nutrients and organic matter to impoverished urban soils, saves valuable landfill space, and also generates electricity by burning methane gas produced in the process (Hornsby). Furthermore, this site is also home to a center for environmental research, and is known as one of the best birdwatching sites in Texas (Hornsby). The center for environmental research features classrooms and a laboratory used by the community as well as university students and professors studying wastewater engineering, soil ecology, natural resource management, and restoration ecology (Hornsby). The 360 species of birds here “are a special focus of ‘citizen science’ at the site through the classes and monitoring programs of the Hornsby Bend Bird Observatory” (Hornsby). Today, the community is also involved in education, habitat conservation, and urban sustainability programs (Hornsby). Thus we see the Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant is implementing innovative technologies, not only in the area of waste treatment and recycling, but also through community involvement and efforts to encourage citizen science.

            Within the case studies discussed in this website, there are many technologies and methods being utilized which have had very positive effects. The city of Detroit has been innovative with its use of CSO basins to prevent excessive pollution. Chicago has been innovative throughout its sewerage history, from raising the city, to diverting the Chicago river, to implementing its tunnel system to prevent overflows. Milwaukee, too, has its share of successful methods. The Deep Tunnel, despite its leaks, has been proven to be quite effective in minimizing overflow events and the innovative technologies used at both of its treatment plants deserve praise as well. However, none of these cities have been truly successful in combating the problem of sewer overflows.

As a report prepared by the National Resources Defense Council and Environmental Integrity  Project stated, "protecting all Americans from exposure to raw and inadequately treated sewage is not a matter of waiting for the next technology breakthrough" (Dorfman, 57). The technology is there, but public and political apathy have made this issue get much worse than it ever should have. "What is needed is the political will to adequately implement, enforce, and fund existing laws and sewage infrastructure improvement programs and fill data gaps on the occurrence of sewage overflows, their health and economic impacts, and the condition of the U.S. sewage collection and treatment infrastructure" (Dorfman, 57).

Believe it or not, federal funding for wastewater infrastructure received the largest cut of any environmental program in President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal year 2004 (Dorfman, 57). Poll after poll indicates that Americans are very concerned with this issue and clean water in general. Nonetheless, these concerns are ignored and this major issue is not being addressed in the least.

There are three major aspects of a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for wastewater management in the Great Lakes region. These are outlined in greater detail in the aforementioned report.
  1. Increase federal funding for wastewater infrastructure. This money should go to maintenence and improvement of existing plants, as well as for the development of more plants using the latest and most effective technologies. Federal subsidies should be available to cities looking to clean up their act. There should also be federal disincentives for those cities who are failing in this area. 
  2. Enforce current sewage treatment plant requirements. "Sanitary sewer overflows are illegal, yet the EPA estimates that the number of such overflows is growing." (Dorfman, 60). Current standards and requirements are not enforced, when they should, in fact, be more strict. The EPA's proposal to allow "blended" sewage to be released into the environment must be dropped. Management, operation, and maintenence requirements should be strengthened and enforced. Adopt water quality standards and require treatment plants to meet them. 
  3. Collect data and inform the public. This is perhaps the most important step to take, and also the easiest to implement. Citizen scientists are already taking this action by writing letters, doing water samples, raising awareness, holding forums, and suing perpetrators. The more people know about the seriousness and immensity of this problem, the easier it will be to get federal funds and stricter regulations to put an end to sewer overflows. Treatment facilities and overflow pipes must always be monitored, and the public must always be informed whenever there is an overflow event. It is the right of citizens to know when these hazardous pollutants are released into their community. The public must also be informed and educated about the risks involved with sewer overflows and about waterborne illnesses. 
(Dorfman, 57-66).

            Many technologies, new methods, and successful models are available today which could drastically improve urban wastewater management in the Great Lakes watershed. What is lacking, however, is funding and initiative. The current federal administration has been threatening the funding for wastewater management, an issue which clearly needs to be a priority. Since federal, state, and even municipal groups seem to be ignoring this huge problem, it is now up to citizen groups to raise awareness and push for action now. The citizen groups mentioned in this site have been working hard through education, activism, clean-up programs, and legal actions. Currently the public is left in the dark about sewerage problems such as sewer overflows. Once people start to know about how often these events are happening and the harms they can have, not only to human health but also to the greater ecosystem, action will follow.


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