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Hurricanes exposed aging sewer infrastructure, systemic issues

Parts of Georgia received up to 10 inches of rain from Hurricane Irma. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that Brunswick got 5 inches. The National Weather Service says Glynn County received an average of over 9.4 inches.

In both Brunswick and Glynn County, residents noticed untreated sewage oozing out of manholes to join the flood water in the streets. Power outages contributed to the problem by shutting down the pumping stations that carry wastewater to treatment plants.

In both places, the water and sewer infrastructure was simply overwhelmed. "Every drop of water takes up capacity," said the director of engineering for the Joint Water & Sewer Commission in Glynn County.

Part of the problem, however, is that the infrastructure was also old -- some parts of Glynn County's sewer system are from the 40s. The pipes from that era are often made of clay, which is more vulnerable to underground leaks that can overwhelm treatment plants. The chair of the Glynn County Commission said that Irma and earlier storms overwhelmed a system that was already overburdened by local development. He also said that maintenance had been neglected for decades.

"Politicians don't typically spend money on infrastructure," he told the Wall Street Journal. "It's just easy to ignore." A spokesperson for the American Society of Civil Engineers agrees that there hasn't been enough funding to care for underground infrastructure.

No system is expected to function after 50 inches of rain like Houston had. However, the recent storms didn't cause the problem but simply intensified one already occurring regularly across the nation.

Most wastewater treatment facilities in the U.S. are run by municipalities as public utilities. They charge rates based on usage -- and residential sewer bills are consistently outpacing costs, even though the American Water Works Association says the average bill grew from $22 per month in 2004 to over $42 in 2016.

The Environmental Protection Agency provides low-cost loans to local treatment plants for both capital and environmental projects, which can be crucial as costs rise from increased regulation and more severe storm. Last year, the EPA awarded $7.6 billion in such funding.

Meanwhile, sales of municipal bonds for water and sewer projects topped $37 billion last year, compared to $22 billion in 2013.

Sewer spills can cause drinking water contamination, kill fish and local wildlife and, in the case of hurricane cleanup, put people's health at risk. Are our state and local governments doing enough to promote safer sewer systems? Are low-cost loans from the EPA sufficient input from the federal government?

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