A Path to Cleaner Water

How investments in America’s water infrastructure are protecting waterways

Environment Maryland Research and Policy Center

Executive Summary

America’s waterways are a national asset. They are the places we swim on hot summer days, kayak with friends and family, spend a relaxing day fishing, and so much more. Yet billions of gallons of stormwater runoff and sewage overflows continue to pollute our rivers, lakes and coastal waters. As a result, all too often our beaches are unsafe for swimming, communities are flooded with sewage, and toxic algal outbreaks threaten wildlife and public health. Absent strong action from our leaders, these pollution problems will worsen in coming years, as overdevelopment and more intense storms put greater burdens on our fraying water infrastructure systems.  

Stormwater and wastewater management systems are part of America’s water infrastructure; when properly maintained they can prevent pollution. But as a nation, we have failed to keep our water infrastructure in working order. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. wastewater infrastructure a D+ grade in 2017.1

If we want clean water, our nation will have to make a substantial investment in repairing and updating our infrastructure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that wastewater and stormwater systems will require an investment of $271 billion over the next 20 years to meet demands.2  This is likely a conservative estimate for actual investment requirements in the coming years.

With investment in clean water, America can deploy nature-based or green infrastructure – such as vegetated buffers, rain barrels, and constructed wetlands – to help prevent combined sewage overflows and capture stormwater before it sweeps pollutants into our waterways. Simply fixing and updating our aging and often outdated sewage infrastructure will also reduce this pollution.

In every EPA Region across the country, there are success stories. Documented cases of communities fixing and/or greening their water infrastructure exist nationwide, creating cleaner waterways as a result:

  • Rhode Island – Green infrastructure and septic replacement helped eliminate beach closures from bacteria at Bristol’s Town Beach on Narragansett Bay.

  • Vermont – Green stormwater infrastructure is protecting the Passumpsic River and St. Albans Bay on Lake Champlain from runoff pollution.

  • Maine – By upgrading its treatment plant, separating sewer lines and increasing stormwater storage, Portland is on track to end sewage overflows into Casco Bay by 2030.

  • Connecticut – Stormwater redirected to an existing wetland, and new vegetation restored the Edgewood Park Pond as a clean and treasured feature of the park.

  • New Jersey – Underway green stormwater infrastructure projects in Hoboken and the Camden area are projected to dramatically reduce pollution into the Hudson and Cooper rivers, respectively.

  • Delaware – A soon-to-be completed stormwater wetland park and stormwater and wastewater sewer separation will eliminate sewer overflows and reduce stormwater pollution into the Christina River.

  • Maryland – Green infrastructure and conservation landscaping around the MedStar Harbor Hospital is trapping and filtered 18 acres of runoff before it reaches the Patapsco River.

  • Florida – Updates to sewer and stormwater infrastructure is keeping runoff pollution from Robert’s Bay and the surrounding white sand beaches.

  • North Carolina – Forthcoming sewer improvements will keep sewage pollution from entering the Flat Swamp and flowing into the Neuse River.

  • Alabama – Green infrastructure soaks up nutrients, making Mill Creek clean and accessible to Auburn University and local residents.

  • Illinois – A world-class stormwater tunnel and reservoir system eliminated combined sewer overflows in 2018 from the Calumet river systems in the Chicago region.

  • Ohio – Green stormwater infrastructure projects around Cleveland are keeping 46 million gallons of combined sewer overflows out of Lake Erie.

  • Wisconsin – An in-the-works green stormwater park will prevent an estimated 150,000 gallons of stormwater runoff from Interstate 794 from contaminating Lake Michigan.

  • Texas – Wastewater treatment system updates keep fecal bacteria out of the Guadalupe River, and nature-based infrastructure incorporated into a road redesign now protects the San Marcos River from stormwater pollution.

  • Missouri – Green infrastructure and a stream restoration project is preventing stormwater runoff pollution and other threats from contaminating the Blue River and South Creek.

  • Montana – Wastewater treatment system upgrades are helping protect Hebgen Lake for wildlife and recreation.

  • California – An ongoing project to switch residents from failing septic systems to a new wastewater treatment facility will help make Malibu Lagoon State Beach safe for swimming and surfing.

  • Washington – Wastewater treatment plant upgrades greatly reduce nitrogen levels and eliminate combined sewer overflows into the Puget Sound. 

  • Oregon – Gray and green stormwater infrastructures are working together to reduce combined sewer overflows into the Willamette River and Columbia Slough by 94 percent and 99 percent, respectively.

These examples show investments in water infrastructure providing tangible clean water results.

Policy makers must invest in America’s water infrastructure and innovative gray and green infrastructure to prevent stormwater runoff pollution and sewage overflows from reaching waterways. By investing now, the nation can begin improving its water management systems before the problem worsens and becomes harder to address.

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