Region Forward Blog

Water Infrastructure Investments Key to Region's Water Quality Goals Health and Prosperity

Jun 26, 2014


During a discussion at the June Council of Governments Board of Directors meeting experts and officials reviewed how investments in the region’s wastewater and stormwater infrastructure have produced significant environmental improvements such as increasing populations of some aquatic plants and animals and fewer harmful algal blooms in the tidal Potomac below Chain Bridge. They also outlined further work needed to help restore local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay protect public health and support the region’s economy.

The discussion began with a presentation by COG Regional Water Quality Management Chief Tanya Spano about the tremendous investments in treating wastewater over the past several decades and the more recent focus on stormwater improvements and upgrades. Over 90 percent of the region’s population is served by wastewater treatment plants which are primarily managed by local governments and water authorities. In the outer suburbs some homes rely on individual septic or community treatment systems.

Our region is home to 19 major wastewater treatment plants that have capacity to treat from 2 million to up to 370 million gallons a day. Of these plants the Blue Plains plant in the District of Columbia serves 2 million area customers and provides 43 percent of the wastewater capacity for metropolitan Washington. Two localities—the District and Alexandria—have ‘combined sewer systems’ whose plants treat a mixture of stormwater and wastewater. These systems can be more costly and present unique challenges because the potential for sewage overflows to occur during heavy rains.

While wastewater treatment plants are often large complexes stormwater infrastructure is smaller and present in many parts of the region. Some of the new stormwater practices and technologies that people may notice in their communities include low impact development and green infrastructure like rain gardens and vegetated rooftops—which limit the amount of rainfall entering the stormwater system and improve the quality that enters our local waterways.
All of COG’s member governments have stormwater permit requirements set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and states.

Evolving Infrastructure Challenges

Since the 1960s the region’s wastewater treatment plants have made many upgrades and employed state-of-the-art technology to dramatically reduce the amounts of nitrogen phosphorus and other sources of pollution from the water they treat. Experts noted that these reductions occurred despite the region’s population growth—and the related increases in wastewater flow. This success has led to more submerged aquatic vegetation a revival of certain species like American shad and fewer algal blooms in the Potomac River. Our wastewater treatment plants are also expected to meet the region’ needs beyond 2040.

Phosphorus and Shad Charts

Charts showing phosphorus levels decreasing and shad (fish) populations increasing (See Potomac Water Quality fact sheet below for more information)

Moving forward the main infrastructure challenge for wastewater is the need to replace and upgrade aging pipelines some of which are 85 years old. While significant funding has been spent upgrading treatment plants in response to regulatory requirements wastewater pipelines have often been a lower priority and underfunded need.

Unlike wastewater stormwater involves the maintenance of existing infrastructure and the construction of new systems. Initially storm drains and pipes were installed to prevent flooding and move rainfall off roadways but they are now recognized as a key component of water quality efforts. According to the EPA urban runoff accounted for 34 percent of the nitrogen and 41 percent of the phosphorus amounts that reached the Chesapeake Bay from our region in 2013. The region’s efforts on stormwater are making a difference but more work is needed in order to address existing development and as development increases. While pollution from urban runoff has risen recent data shows that it has increased at a much slower rate thanks to the region’s new stormwater investments.

Nitrogen and Phosphorus by Source

Nitrogen and Phosphorus by Source (see Stormwater fact sheet below for more information)

Experts identified challenges for stormwater projects. The process of retrofitting these systems into older communities is costly and time-consuming. In addition both old and new stormwater infrastructure needs maintenance. Fairfax County Maintenance and Stormwater Management Director William Hicks described the process of inspecting every County owned pipe segment in the system and the challenge of coordinating with other partners to ensure the maintenance of non-County owned pipes. Spano reminded officials that newer green infrastructure will also need to be maintained just as pipes and other “gray infrastructure” need to be maintained.

Future Funding and Regulations

Adam Krantz of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies stressed to COG officials the importance of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s and the federal funding that followed to help build and enhance these wastewater plants. He and other panelists said stormwater programs need a similar commitment of federal dollars since their costs have been financed exclusively at the local level.

Several elected officials asked the panel about funding challenges and the total price tag for these regional infrastructure needs. While total numbers for the region are still being compiled it is clear that the costs for wastewater system improvements will continue to be high and increase over time. As people use less water Spano noted there are also less available funds for projects and pipelines which will require new rate structures and revenue sources. And wastewater plants have also been making great progress in offsetting some costs through initiatives like on-site energy generation (using solar panels and digester gases) as well as evaluating options for ‘harvesting’ phosphorus for sale and producing biosolids products.

For stormwater the current estimate is $8 to $12 billion will be needed over the next two decades but the funding picture is less clear as new permits and regulations are in the process of being issued. Christopher Pomeroy of AquaLaw noted the remarkable amount of litigation surrounding new stormwater permits as governments and stakeholders settle on targets and weigh their benefits and costs.

Focusing on both wastewater and stormwater at the same meeting showed how the subject areas connect with each other as well as drinking water and energy topics at previous COG Infrastructure Series discussions. Most importantly as they consider the region’s future needs and how to fund them the June meeting reminded area leaders that it’s essential for wastewater and stormwater infrastructure to be big parts of the conversation.

About the 2014 Regional Infrastructure Series:
COG has planned a series on regional infrastructure focused on its main areas of expertise such as transportation water energy and public safety communications. Officials hope the series will identify policy advocacy and outreach actions around key infrastructure needs. COG’s officials believe that long-term commitment to capital investment and maintenance of our infrastructure is vital to achieving our Region Forward vision for a more prosperous accessible livable and sustainable metropolitan Washington.

Water Facts Sheets
Potomac Water Quality Fact Sheet (w/ Wastewater Stats referenced above) – June 2014
Stormwater Fact Sheet – June 2014

Previous Infrastructure Series Blogs:
​Energy Talk Focuses on Future of Newer Infrastructure Greater Reliability and Efficiency
Officials Launch Series with Discussion on Water Infrastructure (Drinking Water)

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