WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) today highlighted the Senate-passed Water Resources Development Act, which includes his legislation to help communities make costly updates to outdated combined sewage overflow (CSO) systems. CSOs are a threat to Lake Erie and Ohio drinking water, and contributed to recent sewer overflows that left Hamilton County residents with flooded basements. 

“Whether it’s eliminating harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie or flooded basements in Cincinnati, we know that our state’s water infrastructure needs billions in investment,” said Brown. “Not only will this new investment protect local customers from high water bills and lead to cleaner water, it will also create jobs and promote economic development.”

During a news conference call today, Brown was joined by Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune. Portune explained how updating CSOs would prevent basements in communities from flooding during severe weather. More than 1,400 businesses and homes in Hamilton County recently experienced the havoc sewer overflow can cause.

“This bill answers the prayers of Hamilton County and over 780 other cities, counties and sewer districts nationwide in meeting our financial burdens under the Clean Water Act,” said Portune. “It not only provides new money to assist us, but under the bill EPA becomes a better partner with locals through the use of Green Infrastructure and by considering ratepayer affordability when determining how consent decrees are structured. The result is expedited Clean Water Act compliance, lower sewer rates and cleaner water in the environment and to drink”

Brown was also joined by Aaron Klein, Sandusky’s Public Works Director, who spoke about how separating combined sewers helps keep harmful, untreated storm water and human waste out of Lake Erie. Sandusky’s CSO update is ongoing and the community is working on green infrastructure projects – which help capture rain water in plants, grasses, and parks before it reaches the sewer systems. These investments are also encouraged under Brown’s bill.

“The City of Sandusky has been working since 1997 to reduce CSOs by installing gray infrastructure like sewers and treatment processes at the wastewater treatment plant,” said Klein. “Due to the financial burden and the desire to ensure the long term vitality of Lake Erie, which is the foundation for the regional economy and local quality of life, the City realized that we must engage more proactive green infrastructure treatment projects designed to clean storm water prior to entering the sewer system while also reduce its volume. Preserving Sandusky Bay and Lake Erie is too steep of a burden for lakefront community to handle on their own.”

Ohio communities are struggling to afford costly but necessary renovations to sewer systems and too often ratepayers bear the cost through rate increases. To help provide relief for communities, Brown introduced the Clean Water Affordability Act in April, legislation that would help communities make renovations to outdated sewer systems, while improving water quality and keeping rates affordable for residents. This legislation was folded into the Senate’s Water Resources Development Act, which passed last week and now awaits action in the House of Representatives.

Federal guidelines require municipalities to renovate these outdated systems to protect human health and the environment, but upgrades often prove too costly for many small communities. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), communities across the nation face an estimated $48 billion in need for overflow system renovations. These projects represent nearly 20 percent of all wastewater needs reported in the most recent EPA needs survey. 

A 2012 EPA survey found more than 70 Ohio communities with serious sewage overflow problems amounts to a needed investment of $7.5 billion over the next 20 years. The report calculated there is an immediate need of more than $10 billion in Ohio for improvements in publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities.

Brown’s bill is aimed at updating the EPA’s clean water affordability policy, which can put undue strain on the budgets of local communities. The current EPA affordability policy does not provide for a full and accurate representation of the financial impacts of clean water investment programs on communities struggling to meet federal regulations for improving their water infrastructure.

Specifically, the Clean Water Affordability Act:

  • Recognizes local economic trends—high unemployment rates, recent job loss, population loss, impact of rate increases on low-income populations—to adjust the process and increase flexibility in the setting of compliance dates.

  • Authorizes $1.8 billion in competitive grants over the next five years and prioritizes communities who already have water quality issues and need the money most. According to Standard and Poor’s, every $1 billion invested in infrastructure projects creates more than 20,000 jobs.

  • Requires EPA to increase its emphasis on cost-saving green infrastructure projects.

  • Integrated permitting is encouraged to allow communities to prioritize and plan for water-infrastructure investments in the most affordable way for ratepayers.