When you think of water pollution, you might think of industrial facilities spewing weird toxic gunk into a river somewhere. But the source of much of the water pollution in the United States is not nearly so stereotypically nefarious. One of the major contributors to water pollution, is, in fact, us — the urban and suburban communities that the majority of the population calls home.
Every time it rains, stormwater runoff from roofs, parking lots and driveways washes pollutants into the nation’s streams, rivers and lakes. At the same time, in many cities with antiquated infrastructure, combined sewer overflow systems send untreated sewage into waterways. The resulting contamination often entails violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
The estimated costs for repairing and replacing the infrastructure that handles all this wastewater and coming into compliance with federal standards run into the hundreds of billions of dollars at the national level. That cost ultimately will get passed along to people who use the water — which is to say, everybody.
According to a new brief from the Natural Resources Defense Council, however, municipalities could help to solve the problem by ramping up water-conservation strategies to reduce wastewater. Less water going into the system means less water coming out — and potentially less need to build pricy infrastructure.
“The main theme is to emphasize the links between the water pollution side of the equation and the water supply side of the equation,” says Larry Levine, senior attorney in NRDC’s water program. “There are implications for customers and ratepayers. The more water that gets used and goes down into the sewer translates into increased costs of building and maintaining that infrastructure, certainly in places where there’s population growth. If you’re able to reduce the demand, you might be able to reduce the size of the infrastructure you need to build.”
The brief, titled “Waste Less, Pollute Less: Using Urban Water Conservation to Advance Clean Water Act Compliance,” says that for cities facing shortages in water supply — like the drought-afflicted population centers of California — a more conservationist approach to wastewater and runoff could also be an important source of clean water. A 2014 study by NRDC found that green infrastructure and stormwater capture practices at new and redeveloped properties in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California between now and 2030 could save enough water in a year to supply 800,000 families. If those same strategies were used to retrofit existing properties in the same area, the result would be enough water to quench the thirst of the city of Los Angeles each year.
Some cities are already making big strides in the way they deal with wastewater, according to the brief. As part of its holistic approach to water management, the city of San Antonio, for instance, has kept demand for water steady over the past 25 years despite a 67 percent increase in population, resulting in a savings of $2.7 billion in water supply costs and $1 billion in wastewater treatment costs. New York’s high-efficiency toilet rebate program reduced dry-weather flows enough that the city was able to defer billion-dollar expansions of four sewage-treatment plants. Boston has saved hundreds of millions in new water supply costs through its conservation efforts, including distribution of free low-flow showerheads and better leak detection and repair.
Part of NRDC’s goal in issuing the brief, says Levine, is getting wastewater authorities interested in the potential cost savings and environmental benefits of conservation. “There’s a whole slew of policy tools available,” he says. “We want to create advocates out of wastewater utilities.”
At the consumer level, he acknowledges, getting people interested in such super-wonky conservation policies is not always an easy sell, especially in relatively water-rich areas like the Northeast. But there are some things about wastewater that he thinks anybody can understand on an intuitive level.
Take the problem of combined sewer overflow, which happens in cities with old infrastructure such as New York, where wastewater and stormwater go into the same system. During heavy rains that overwhelm treatment plants, that means the stuff that goes down your drain and your toilet ends up in the surrounding waters, a truly disgusting phenomenon anybody who lives near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn (like me) has witnessed.
In cases like that, says Levine, the average resident of New York can do his or her part without getting into the weeds of infrastructure policy. “On one level, it’s wonky,” he says. “Who ever thinks about the plumbing code? On the other hand, there is a simplicity to the concepts. When it’s raining, when you flush the toilet, what you flush goes straight to the river. If you can wait until it stops raining, you should do that.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.