Op-Ed: Ending the Garden State’s CSO curse

All it takes is a fraction of an inch of rain for New Jersey’s combined sewer and stormwater outflows to overwhelm wastewater treatment plants with raw sewage
John D’Amico

For more than a century, a major flaw in New Jersey’s wastewater infrastructure has caused the pollution of river, bay and ocean water from New York City to Sandy Hook and the Delaware River Basin. It has led to bans on swimming, fishing and shellfish harvesting in these areas, and every summer it causes beach closures as far south as Monmouth and Ocean counties. I call it the “CSO curse.”

CSOs are combined sewer and stormwater outflows from pipes that carry stormwater, domestic sewage and industrial waste to sewage treatment facilities. This antiquated infrastructure is common in northern New Jersey counties from Middlesex to Bergen, and it also exists in Mercer and Camden counties. Whenever it rains 1/20th inch or more, the combined outflow of raw sewage and stormwater runoff starts to overwhelm sewage treatment plants, resulting in the release of human and animal waste, oil, pesticides, toxic contaminants and material like syringes and tampons into rivers, bays and the ocean.

Upward of 23 billion gallons of this toxic brew is discharged annually into coastal waters. Loaded with pathogens, it can cause skin, respiratory and ear and eye infections, as well as diseases such as gastroenteritis, hepatitis and dysentery. Swimming, splashing, wading, kayaking or fishing in the affected rivers, bays and ocean waters is therefore dangerous, which is why beaches must be closed. The wastewater also poses a threat to drinking water supplies, impairs the viability of aquatic habitats and causes occasional fish kills.

NJ fell behind

Congress enacted the Clean Water Act of 1972 to restore and maintain clean and healthy waters and amended it in 1977 to regulate the discharge of untreated wastewater from municipalities, industries and businesses into rivers, lakes and coastal waters. To kick-start New Jersey’s response to these requirements, I was the state Senate sponsor of a $50 million Stormwater Management and Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Bond Act. Approved by the voters in 1989, it provided grants and low-interest loans to local governments to offset the costs of stormwater and CSO capital projects. Unfortunately, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection did little with this admittedly inadequate resource, and we fell far behind other states in terms of compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 1994 Combined Sewer Overflows Control Policy.

In 2013, the NY/NJ Baykeeper and Hackensack Riverkeeper sued the DEP to force it to upgrade its CSO regulatory program. The DEP responded in 2015 by issuing stricter permit requirements to be followed by sewer authorities, but there has been limited progress. At Baykeeper’s urging, many authorities, municipalities and community groups have adopted green infrastructure technologies such as rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens, green roofs, bioretention basins, vegetated swales and permeable pavements. Their objective is to allow rainfall to reach the soil and recharge aquifers, while stopping stormwater from reaching the sewers. While helpful, these approaches fall short of what is needed to prevent CSOs from being overwhelmed when storms and heavy rains cause higher than normal runoff and urban flooding. The recent arrival of fecal bacteria, syringes and tampons on Jersey Shore beaches is a warning that we remain vulnerable to this type of pollution.

In January 2021, Baykeeper warned the DEP that the timelines presented in the plans most recently submitted by sewer treatment permittees have CSO elimination stretched out over the next 20 to 40 years. There are several reasons for this unacceptable deferral of the CSO curse to the next generation. First, the fix will require substantial capital projects involving traditional and advanced engineering. Known as “gray infrastructure,” they include sewer/storm-drain separation, satellite holding and/or treatment facilities, sewer plant expansion, nonpoint pollution controls and “end-of-pipe” netting, screens and treatment. Second, the fix is extremely expensive. In 2014, CSO correction was estimated to cost $9.3 billion; decentralized wastewater treatment, $2.2 billion; repair and improvement of secondary and advanced treatment, $6.3 billion; and nonpoint pollution control, $1.8 billion. The price tag is higher today. Third, most of the 20 communities and eight sewage treatment authorities with 217 CSO outfall pipes are in older urban areas and are fiscally constrained. They have very much higher percentages of poor and low-income residents, and they will be hard-pressed to undertake CSO remediation while addressing deferred maintenance of existing wastewater treatment facilities and other public services.

A task for NJ’s congressional delegation

Add to this scenario the latest finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, approved by 195 member states on Aug. 6, 2021, that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are expected to produce at least 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming throughout the 21st century. This will cause more intense rainfall and associated flooding as well as continued sea-level rise in coastal areas. An example of the potential aggravation of the CSO curse by these changes was provided by Superstorm Sandy, which inundated wastewater treatment plants and sent more than 10 billion gallons of raw and partly treated sewage into the streets, rivers, canals and bays.

In May 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the Drinking Water and Infrastructure Act (S.914), which would provide $1.4 billion over five years for the sewer overflow and stormwater reuse municipal-grant program to help communities to better manage their wet weather flows and invest in green infrastructure. In August, the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure package that includes the following annual appropriations for each of fiscal years 2022 through 2026: $280 million for sewer overflow and stormwater reuse; $25 million for resilient clean-water infrastructure of publicly owned treatment works, including green infrastructure; and $5 million for stormwater infrastructure technology centers of excellence for new and emerging stormwater control technologies. Those proposed appropriations, for which there will be national competition, fall far short of what New Jersey needs to upgrade its wastewater treatment infrastructure. It is therefore essential that New Jersey’s congressional delegation attempt to increase the level of federal support as these bills are considered in the House of Representatives. In addition, the DEP, Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature must fashion a robust bond issue to address CSO remediation in a manner that acknowledges the urgency of the situation and ends the CSO curse once for all.

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