The essence of the problem is that older cities like New York have antiquated systems and many newer cities have systems whose capacity is inadequate. During severe rains the systems can’t process all of the wastewater and consequently dump untreated sewage into lakes and rivers–often in violation of the Clean Water Act.
In areas with combined sewer systems, the problem is exacerbated since these systems route both wastewater and storm runoff to the pipes. In severe storms, backups can occur and raw sewage can flood basements and buildings.
The EPA gets criticized in the article for not enforcing the law and municipalities are consequently not penalized for their violations. Although EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has pledged to get tougher on violators, municipalities argue that the problems they face stem from a lack of resources and investment to improve systems that have been neglected. Fines would result in money simply going to the Feds that could otherwise be used to improve systems.
It seems that a good model would be to have aggressive federal action, but to place the focus on helping municipalities develop better ways to improve handling their capacity. For instance, municipalities could adopt stronger regulations on stormwater management for development or offer incentives for water mitigation techniques like green roofs or permeable pavement.
One subtext that doesn’t get explicitly mentioned in the article is climate change. A major problem with the municipalities discussed in the article is that they are seeing a rise in the number of 100- and 500- year flood events. This comports with climate change science that suggests more severe storms will occur as the planet gets hotter. Wastewater treatment, in turn, is generally very energy-intensive.
Thus one could envision that climate change legislation in the US could have adaptation money available for water system upgrades and for mitigation policies. Green roofs, for instance, decrease runoff and they also act as an insulator, improving a building’s energy efficiency; or substituting permeable pavement in a parking lot could both reduce urban heat island effect and reduce runoff.
It is important to recognize that water quality and climate variation are intimately related.