Money down the drain? (Part 1)

Money down the drain? (Part 1)

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Image from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (mwra.org).  Photo taken without permission,  but I don’t think they’d mind.  At least I hope not.

In the women’s bathroom on the fifth floor on one of the buildings in which I used to teach,  there was a sticker on the wall: “I am not a trashcan!  The trash you flush might end up in the ocean.”  Underneath it,  someone had written in magic marker,  “So where does our poop go?”  Most people don’t think about where their poop goes at all – they flush the toilet,  and it just goes “away.”  And if they do think about it,  they think what my six year old daughter does: that it goes to the treatment plant.

The reality is not quite so simple,  at least here in Portland,  Maine.  Under normal circumstances,  what we flush down the toilet goes to the treatment plant.  But under what are called “heavy flow conditions,” then yes,  what we flush down the toilet COULD end up in the ocean.

The reason has to do with the pipes that connect or homes to the treatment plant, something that many of us don’t usually consider. Many of those pipes serve a dual purpose: not only do they convey wastewater to the treatment plant,  but runoff from what are called “impervious surfaces” as well. Impervious surfaces are roads, driveways, roofs,  sidewalks – anything that water just runs off of,  not seeps into.

Portland was first settled in 1632.  OK,  so the infrastructure is not that old,  but  a significant part of Portland’s wastewater infrastructure dates back to the 1870s. So why is that a problem? It turns out that many of the pipes that convey sewage from our houses are designed with a relatively low capacity. After all, Portland was a much smaller city back then. It isn’t usually a concern: under average conditions,  the pipes are more than adequate to convey all our waste.  But after a heavy rain (or snowmelt – think about what’s going to happen when all this snow melts!), those pipes are overloaded with both sewage and runoff,  and all of it – raw sewage,  oil from cars, salt from the roads,  cigarette butts,  you name it – can end up in the ocean. Yuck.

OK,  so it’s pretty easy to see why that’s an environmental problem. Why is it an environmental AND an economic problem? Well, start with the fact that pollution harms fish and other aquatic life.   Add to that the fact that Portland makes a good portion of its income either directly or indirectly from the fishing industry.  Shellfish, including the iconic lobster, are particularly affected by this type of pollution.   Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) have been directly linked to beach and shellfish bed closures in Maine.  It’s been estimated that the economic value of coastal recreation to Maine and New Hampshire is at least $400 million a year http:// (http://www.pressherald.com/2013/07/26/maine-nh-universities-lead-beach-research-project/).  Every time a beach is closed,  due to high levels of contaminants like fecal coliform (poop, in other words), it costs the Maine economy possibly thousands of dollars. And beach closures have been increasing in recent years.

Add regulation to that.  In 1987, the Clean Water Act (which,  by the way,  was championed by Maine’s own Ed Muskie) was amended to cover stormwater discharges in its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. This means that municipalities that discharge stormwater to the waters of the United States must get a permit for those discharges. The permit is based partly on the water quality standards in the receiving water.  If you want to be able to swim in the water,  for example, the lower the amount of pollution allowed.  If there is more runoff in an area, then the greater the overall contaminant level is,  and therefore the smaller the “margin for error” in case something goes wrong.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued  a control policy in 1994 that provided “guidance to municipalities and State and Federal permitting authorities on how to meet the Clean Water Act’s pollution control goals as flexibly and cost-effectively as possible” (http:// http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/npdes/cso/CSO-Control-Policy.cfm).

Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are not illegal (yet).  But municipalities are required to have a plan in place to reduce them.  The City of Portland and the Portland Water District have a comprehensive plan to reduce the number of CSOs from 39 (in 1993) to 6, and to eliminate discharge to Casco Bay, Capisic Brook, the Fore River, and the Presumpscot estuary. Further goals were to minimize discharges to Back Cove and Portland Harbor (http://www.portlandmaine.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/5377).

As any environmental economist (or business person) would tell you, go for the low-hanging fruit first.  First eliminate the discharges where you get the most bang for your buck,  either where the gallons eliminated per dollar spent is the most,  or where the damages caused by the discharges (the benefits of elimination) are the greatest. Since the City of Portland and the Portland Water District have been at this for a long time,  one would assume that the low hanging fruit has already been picked. Now the chickens have come home to roost, to (badly) mix metaphors.  In order to go much further,  the City and the District are going to have to spend some serious bucks. There is some federal money available,  but not a lot,  and so the City is implementing a “stormwater fee”, based on the amount of impermeable surfaces a property owner has.

Now,  I’m an economist,  so I’m generally in favor of market based approaches to environmental problems. But obviously the fee is controversial,  and has been called an illegal tax by some (it’s not,  and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court weighed in on this in 2012, following the implementation of a similar fee in Lewiston in 2007.  See http://law.justia.com/cases/maine/supreme-court/2012/2012-me-42.html).

In my next post,  I’ll go over the economics of this stormwater fee,  which was approved by the Portland City Council last week ( http:// http://www.pressherald.com/2015/01/21/portland-council-approves-new-fees-on-stormwater-runoff/).  Other cities have implemented similar fees,  but have used different structures. I’ll also talk about some of the different methods that engineers (and households) can use to reduce stormwater discharges, and the general cost-benefit of each of them. So stay tuned!

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