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Explainer: Why Must Combined Sewer Outfalls Be Upgraded, Replaced?

Long-term CSO permits have been issued to operators of systems that handle both wastewaters and stormwater -- for very good reasons

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Why the need for new permits?

Combined systems are an older method of handling stormwater (newer systems keep sewage and stormwater separate). During rainfall or snowmelt, combined systems are often overwhelmed by the volume of incoming water. As a result, sometimes they overflow, causing untreated sewage to be released directly into nearby waterways and sometimes into streets and basements (these events are called combined sewer overflows). This release of untreated sewage violates the federal Clean Water Act.

Most of the combined systems in New Jersey are also past their useful lifespan. Many were installed more than 100 years ago and have repeatedly had maintenance and upgrade work delayed because of costs. The result is often a system that represents not only a public-health hazard and environmental problem but also a constraint on future growth and development.

What do the new permits require?

The new permits will require system operators to develop long-term strategies, known as Long Term Control Plans, to reduce combined-sewer overflows. The permit system encourages regional collaboration on planning and development of projects that will “provide urban redevelopment opportunities, improve water quality, beautify neighborhoods and improve the overall quality of life in our urban communities,” said DEP Commissioner Robert Martin in announcing the new permit framework on January 7, 2015. Those who submit regional plans will have a five-year period within which to do so, while those submitting individual plans face a three-year deadline.

How is this different?

The DEP is giving system operators the opportunity to develop comprehensive, forward-looking solutions to their sewer-overflow problems, rather than waiting for the EPA to impose an enforceable plan through the courts or a negotiation process under the Clean Water Act, as has happened in hundreds of other U.S. cities. EPA-imposed plans are extremely restrictive, giving system operators little flexibility in how they can address their CSOs. By contrast, the DEP permits allow system operators the flexibility to develop and implement true best-practice solutions that will enhance their communities for generations into the future.

Why is upgrading our combined sewer systems such a challenge?

Most of the cities with combined sewer systems, including Camden, Newark, Elizabeth, Paterson, and Passaic, are among New Jersey's poorest, and until recently had lost population steadily. In order to keep water and sewer rates low in the face of a shrinking and increasingly poor rate base, system operators have repeatedly delayed necessary maintenance and equipment upgrades. Most of the cities are enjoying a recent surge in population and employment growth, outpacing the rest of the state. Regardless, the cost of CSO solutions will be significant -- estimates range from $2 billion to $9 billion -- and politicians and ratepayers alike are loath to pay more for services they’ve come to take for granted. Especially in the poorer cities, some of the ratepayers cannot afford the rate increases that would be needed to fund the upgrades.

Unlike gas and electric utilities, which have programs such as LIHEAP to help low-income ratepayers afford heat during the winter, there is no assistance mechanism to help those same customers pay their sewer bills.

Are there other ways to help finance these repairs and upgrades?

Yes, although no one mechanism can provide a complete solution. For example, the Environmental Infrastructure Trust is a revolving loan fund that provides low-cost financing, sometimes with a grant component, for system upgrades. Green-infrastructure approaches can draw on multiple funding streams, such as parks and road budgets.

In other states, operators of combined sewer systems charge a fee to property owners for handling stormwater that runs off their properties. This fee allocates the cost more equitably among all users of the system, since property owners that don't currently use the sewer system -- such as surface parking lots -- pay their fair share of the cost to treat the stormwater they generate.

Are there ways to reduce or slow the amount of stormwater that enters these systems during heavy rains or snowmelts?

Absolutely. They fall into two categories. Interventions intended to slow the flow of stormwater runoff into the sewer system so that it doesn't overwhelm it include such things as underground holding tanks and tunnels. These are able to capture and hold excess stormwater, and allow it to flow into the sewer system at a rate that doesn't cause overflows. There are also times when it is feasible to separate the pipes that carry stormwater, and divert them away from the sewer system entirely. These kinds of interventions are known collectively as gray infrastructure. On the scale that is needed for a larger urban area, they are extremely expensive to construct.

Interventions intended to handle stormwater where it falls, so that it never enters the system at all, are known collectively as green infrastructure. Examples of green infrastructure include rain barrels and cisterns, which capture and hold stormwater from roofs so it can be used externally for things like irrigation; rain gardens, and bioswales, which are planted areas intended to collect and hold stormwater and allow it to infiltrate into the ground; and pervious pavement, which is designed to reduce stormwater runoff by allowing water to infiltrate into the soil where it falls. In addition to reducing the amount of stormwater that flows into the sewer system, green-infrastructure projects make a neighborhood healthier and more attractive, conserve water, and create good local jobs.

Comprehensive solutions to New Jersey's CSO problems should involve both green and gray infrastructure. Green-infrastructure initiatives can help to reduce the overall cost to address the problem and deliver the kinds of tangible community benefits that will build ratepayer support for upgrades, and so should be an integral part of the plans that system operators must submit.

For additional information and resources, please see New Jersey Future’s urban water resources page, including its new CSO Fact Sheet; its CSO by the Numbers profile of CSO communities and systems; its report Ripple Effects; the Agenda for Change, developed with a group of stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds; a new report on best practices, Water Infrastructure that Works for Cities; and a model Request for Proposals for CSO Long Term Control Plans.

Chris Sturm directs New Jersey Future’s policy development and advocacy across a host of issues, including state and regional planning, sustainable infrastructure, and incentives for compact, equitable development.

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