Water quality prospects not promising

Restoring and replacing water and wastewater infrastructure in the aftermath of two powerful hurricanes in the US Gulf Coast will require a long-term financial commitment by competent government.

Restoring and replacing water and wastewater infrastructure in the aftermath of two powerful hurricanes in the US Gulf Coast will require a long-term financial commitment by competent government.

Louisiana already topped the nation in the volume of toxic releases into its surface waters and public sewerage systems for quite some time, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before any hurricane winds blew through the narrow streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter on 29 August.

Louisiana and Texas rate among eight US states that are home to the greatest number of major facilities that are the worst violators of the Clean Water Act. One-third of Louisiana’s community water systems reported health standard violations. Most violations are never reported, according to the EPA final report on data quality, which makes this statistic even more noteworthy.

So after two severe hurricanes slammed the Gulf coast - Katrina and then Rita on September 24 - the prospects for clean water, even in the long term, are not promising. Nationwide, the physical condition of water and wastewater infrastructure is poor due to the lack of investment in plant, equipment and other capital improvements, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the situation is not improving given budgetary cutbacks and governmental priorities. Last spring, the ASCE 2005 Report Card for Infrastructure lowered the US grade from a “D” in 2001 to a “D+” in 2005. Louisiana is not alone.

The storm surges directly hit these coastal areas, left more vulnerable from the loss of protective wetlands to development for decades, and severely damaged aging and underfunded water and wastewater systems. Louisiana has already lost one million wetlands, and continues to lose 25 square miles of wetlands each year. In total, the two hurricanes affected coastal communities in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

In New Orleans, Katrina struck some 60 major industrial sites and four Superfund waste sites; floodwaters surely spread this contamination. Nine oil spills that released more than seven million gallons in the New Orleans area added more toxic substances to the floodwaters, soil, homes and debris. Hurricane Rita landed in the northeast coast of Texas and southeast Louisiana, a major oil refinery, where state environmental officials discovered in a flyover at least 33 oil spills along the Louisiana coast.

In Mississippi, the EPA reported that facilities that provide drinking water for 2.3 million people and treat wastewater for 1.8 million people remain out of commission one month following Hurricane Katrina. Twenty percent of drinking water systems and 10 percent of wastewater facilities remain out of commission.

In total, 415 municipal water treatment plants in Louisiana and Mississippi were seriously compromised, completely out of commission, or unaccounted for; and 172 sewage treatment plants were not fully functioning, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). New Orleans’ water treatment plants and distribution network failed completely.

The cost of repairing and replacing water supply infrastructure in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina alone may cost US$ 2.25 billion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), which issued a report on 23 September. The authors and contributors to the report - AWWA staff and engineers from Stratus Consulting and CH2M Hill -- pointed out that the estimate was based on the best data available at the time, which was incomplete. Since so limited data was available on damages to public water supply facilities following the hurricane, the project team based their assessment on several factors: storm surge, flooding and impact scenario within the storm track, and the number, size and type of water systems in affected counties, based on the EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System. The AWWA anticipates that the final total costs of Hurricane Katrina may climb higher due to unknown factors and because the estimate does not include non-capital costs.

The estimate calls for $1.6 billion for 47 water systems serving more than 10,000 persons; and $650 million for 885 smaller, mostly groundwater systems that serve communities with fewer than 10,000 residents. Public water systems in the hurricane-affected region also face an annual burden of $40 million for rated debt.

Most hurricane-related damage affected capital assets, such as treatment plants, pipes, storage and pumping facilities and control systems at public water systems, hit by the storm surge, flooding, debris and fallen trees, according to the report. Other costs not included in this estimate, which could be significant, include onsite power generation, clean up, disinfecting and flushing of distribution systems, and source water contamination. (http://www.awwa.org)

Repairing and reconstructing water supply and wastewater infrastructure along with roads, power, etc., and other necessary public services, will require an enormous, long-term financial commitment by state and federal governments. How to pay for the hurricanes’ recovery effort? One US House of Representatives’ Study Group (Republican) proposes eliminating the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program, which funds states’ efforts to improve water quality nationwide. In an era of declining infrastructure, isn’t this approach troubling?

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