Like our highways and bridges, our wastewater infrastructure needs improvement.
Like so much of America’s infrastructure, our wastewater infrastructure is aging and inadequate. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, more than 56 million new users will be connected to centralized water treatment systems over the next two decades, and at least $271 billion will be needed in upgrades and repairs to meet current and future demands.
What is wastewater? It’s the “used” water from homes and businesses. It comes from showers, toilets, dishwashers and washing machines. It also comes from farms (for example, the water used to wash farm equipment), power and industrial plants (which require significant amounts of water for cooling and other processes) and other commercial enterprises. Storm runoff, which is typically laden with contaminants, is considered wastewater, too.
Wastewater needs to be treated to remove all sorts of suspended solids and pollutants — everything from soaps, fats and oils to nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous to bacteria and viruses to pharmaceutical products — before it’s discharged into local water bodies. Treating wastewater doesn’t return it to a pure, unadulterated state. Rather, according to USGS, the science agency for the Department of the Interior, “treatment plants reduce pollutants in wastewater to a level nature can handle.”
Currently, the funding available to add or upgrade sanitary sewers and water treatment plants falls far short of what’s needed.
On the positive side, some states, municipalities and individual property owners are making efforts to decrease the load on wastewater infrastructure. Green stormwater infrastructure leverages rain gardens, green roofs and permeable pavement to mimic the natural water cycle. Several states are also making serious efforts to recycle wastewater, even using it for drinking.
Check out the infographic below for more information. And read about four award-winning wastewater projects for a sense of the efforts underway to update our sewers and wastewater treatment facilities.
Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands.