Buried deep beneath our feet and carrying away waste we would rather not think about, sewers do not often make headlines.
But last year in Wisconsin, the cost of ignoring such an important part of the state's infrastructure was made disgustingly clear. During record flooding last June, 70 sewage treatment plants were so overwhelmed by rising waters that they were forced to discharge millions of gallons of raw sewage into lakes and rivers. While the flooding swamped even well-maintained treatment plants, it also revealed many systems where aging or poorly maintained pipes and pumps compounded the disaster.
And, in at least one instance, the sewage overflow showed in startling fashion that broken-down and overwhelmed infrastructure can clearly threaten human health.
In Richland Center, about 70 miles west of Madison, a 6-year-old boy was hospitalized with a life-threatening kidney disease, apparently from an E. coli infection he contracted while playing in contaminated floodwaters. Later, after the boy had recovered, his pediatrician said the frightening incident was a warning and a reminder that our health is linked directly to a clean environment and sewage treatment plants that work as they should.
Many of Wisconsin's sanitary sewer systems are in sorry shape, according to numerous sources. In its 2007 infrastructure report card, the state chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the bill for municipal wastewater treatment updates and repairs in Wisconsin exceeds $3.3 billion.
The demand for money to repair and rebuild sewer systems is greater than ever, according to Robert Ramharter, who is in charge of environmental loans for the state Department of Natural Resources. He said Wisconsin communities have indicated to the agency they intend to apply for a whopping $1.9 billion in loans from the revolving loan fund in the coming year, double what was requested last year.
The final version of the stimulus bill would provide a total of $108 million for the state's Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund, which has traditionally funded local sewer projects. That means, according to the DNR's Ramharter, that instead of $300 million this year, the fund should be at $400 million. Still, the amount from the stimulus program represents just a fraction of the need, he said.
The needs, especially in small communities where repairs and maintenance are more likely to be put off, are tremendous. And the condition of some sewer systems may be worse than many realize. Last year, when the city of Adams in Adams County replaced its entire water and sewer system, workers dug up sections of sewer line only to discover that the old, clay pipes had disintegrated.
"There were some areas where the sewer didn't exist anymore," said city administrator Bob Ellisor. "The sewage wasn't really making it to the sewage plant."