Plan of Action


Coastal flooding from Hurricane Sandy caused scores of sewage treatment plants spanning from Virginia to Rhode Island to release 11 billion gallons of untreated or partially-treated sewage into waterways. Yet, everyday rain events trigger an estimated 10 trillion gallons a year of untreated stormwater to run off roofs, roads, parking lots, and other paved surfaces (often through America's aging sewer systems) into rivers and waterways where it can contaminate our drinking water supplies and beachwaters.

In this 23rd edition of NRDC's annual beachwater quality report, our water quality experts analyze government data from 2012 at more than 3,000 beachwater testing locations nationwide. Unfortunately the findings confirm that America's beaches still suffer from health-threatening contamination and pollutants, including human and animal waste.

Federal officials must curb the most commonly identified cause of beach closings and swimming advisories—polluted stormwater runoff—and stop delaying final rules. To better protect swimmers at our nation's beaches, NRDC strongly recommends the following:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must update national clean water requirements for stormwater sources that reflect the performance of "green infrastructure" techniques
  • State and Federal authorities must enforce existing laws for stormwater and sewage pollution
  • Congress must increase financial assistance for needed repairs to aging sewer systems
  • Communities need to ensure long-term financing is available for stormwater infrastructure improvements
  • EPA must adopt commonsense safeguards for recreational water quality and adequate funding for state monitoring and notification programs should be provided.
  • Leaders must help to stop pollution at its source by protecting nature's pollution filters and flood barriers, and by improving the resilience of wastewater infrastructure to coastal flooding, like the kind seen in Hurricane Sandy's wake.

The EPA Should Reduce Polluted Stormwater Runoff, The Most Commonly Identified Cause off Beach Closings and Swimming Advisories

Reform national clean water requirements for stormwater sources

Polluted urban and suburban runoff is the most commonly identified reason for beach closures and swimming advisories. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority and the responsibility to help communities clean up this stormwater pollution by reforming the national regulations that govern how sources that discharge polluted runoff are controlled. These revamped rules can and should promote widely accepted and cost-effective techniques that prevent rainfall from becoming polluted stormwater and improve communities in a variety of other ways as well.

Existing EPA regulations for sources of runoff pollution, designed more than 20 years ago, have not been implemented in a particularly rigorous way and have failed to address key sources of pollution adequately. Historically, the permitting process for stormwater systems has done a poor job of ensuring that discharges from those systems will not contribute to degraded water quality. In particular, municipal sewer systems and private developers frequently have not been required to meet quantitative limits on stormwater runoff volumes and associated pollution levels from sites undergoing development or redevelopment, and they rarely have been required to improve developed sites to reduce runoff pollution. Moreover, current requirements typically do not apply to rapidly developing areas outside of existing cities.

In view of these deficiencies, in 2009, EPA initiated an effort to reform the minimum requirements applicable to urban and suburban runoff sources. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the requirements that govern how stormwater sources are controlled to protect water quality. In response to litigation filed by NRDC and the Waterkeeper Alliance several years ago over EPA's failure to update its standards for pollution from construction and development activities, the agency is now working to revise the requirements that apply to long-term runoff from developed sites. However, the agency has extended several times its schedule for completing the rulemaking. Most recently, the EPA missed a deadline of June 10, 2013, for issuing a proposed rule. To address this enormous beach pollution source, the agency must get back on track to issue a proposed rule this year and a final rule in 2014.

The EPA's new rules must adopt objective performance requirements for control of runoff volume from new development and redeveloped sites, which will create strong incentives for the deployment of "green infrastructure" approaches. Green infrastructure helps stop runoff pollution by capturing rainwater and either storing it for use or letting it filter back into the ground, replenishing vegetation and groundwater supplies. Examples of green infrastructure include green roofs, street trees, increased green space, rain barrels, rain gardens, and permeable pavement. These solutions have the added benefits of beautifying neighborhoods, cooling and cleansing the air, reducing asthma and heat-related illnesses, lowering heating and cooling energy costs, boosting economies, and supporting American jobs.

What might a runoff retention standard look like? The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires development and redevelopment projects "involving a Federal facility with a footprint that exceeds 5,000 square feet" to ensure that the property will "maintain or restore, to the maximum extent technically feasible, the predevelopment hydrology of the property with regard to the temperature, rate, volume, and duration of flow."1 The EPA has explained that "retaining all storms up to and including the 95th percentile storm event is analogous to maintaining or restoring the predevelopment hydrology with respect to the volume, flow rate, duration, and temperature of the runoff for most sites."2 The EPA should similarly require new development and redevelopment activities to achieve a very high degree of runoff retention, such that any affected site makes only a minimal contribution to the water quality problems caused by stormwater.

In addition, the revised EPA rules should require improvements so that existing developed areas and infrastructure reconstruction projects retain stormwater on-site to address water quality needs. Impervious areas that exist right now are responsible for major water quality problems already; in 2010, the EPA estimated that urban stormwater nationwide "is the primary source of water quality impairment [for] 13% of all rivers and streams[,] 18% of all lakes[, and] 32% of all estuaries."3 Accordingly, EPA's regulatory reforms must ensure that existing impervious areas stop contributing to water degradation by requiring that they be redesigned to retain runoff and thereby minimize their pollution.

Finally, the agency needs to ensure that significant runoff sources are covered by the new rules wherever they are located, and that these sources do their fair share to protect clean water supplies. Rather than restricting pollution controls to urban areas, the EPA must include areas of new or expected development, lands providing critical wildlife habitat, and areas that cause or contribute to water quality problems. Likewise, the EPA's rules should require categories of impervious sites that are important contributors to water quality problems to be controlled no matter where they are. For instance, the rules should require that large parking lots be designed and constructed in a way that prevents runoff from flowing off site and causing problems for nearby waterways. In addition, within municipalities, the EPA's new rules can and should address new development and redevelopment in both combined sewer and separate sewer areas. By requiring owners of sites that create runoff pollution to be responsible for curbing it, the EPA's rules would ease the compliance obligations of municipalities that today are forced to deal with the consequences of increased urban runoff and to bear much of the costs of complying with clean water mandates.

Maintain Core Clean Water Act Requirements for Sewage Treatment, and Increase Financial Assistance for Needed Repairs to Aging Sewer Systems

One of the core requirements of the Clean Water Act is that municipal sewage receive, at a minimum, both "primary" treatment (mainly to remove solids) and "secondary" treatment (which today typically involves using microbes to break down organic material and kill harmful bacteria, viruses, and protozoa) before the treated wastewater is discharged to waterways. These basic requirements, coupled with substantial federal funding for modern wastewater treatment infrastructure in the 1970s and 1980s, are responsible for huge improvements in water quality nationwide over the past four decades.

Today, however, some municipal wastewater utilities want to weaken the law to create routine exemptions from these requirements whenever rainwater enters poorly maintained sewer systems that were designed to handle only sanitary sewage, overwhelming the capacity of collection systems and treatment facilities. The resulting discharges of untreated sewage from sewer pipes are called sanitary sewer overflows; when sewage receives partial treatment and is diluted with other treated sewage before release into waterways, the practice is known as blending. Current law requires that wastewater utilities remedy these deficiencies in their infrastructure to ensure that partially treated or untreated sewage—which commonly contains high levels of harmful bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens—is not released into waterways, except under extraordinary conditions when there is "no feasible alternative."

A decade ago, when the EPA attempted to roll back these requirements and allow the routine discharge of partially treated sewage during rain events, more than 98,000 public comments were submitted in opposition, and the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposal. Today, Congress should similarly refuse any calls by wastewater utilities to weaken the existing rules, and should instead increase financial assistance to municipalities to support the necessary repairs to their aging, failing sewer systems.

Enforce Existing Laws for Stormwater and Sewage Pollution

As noted above, the EPA has failed to update its stormwater pollution control requirements. Consequently, it is critical that pollution control officials take advantage of opportunities under existing law to reduce the amount and the impacts of stormwater pollution in our communities. Current Clean Water Act rules require most stormwater discharges to be covered by a pollution-limiting permit. For municipal separate stormwater systems, such permits must reduce pollutants to the "maximum extent practicable" and require controls sufficient to meet water quality standards in local water bodies. Those cities with combined stormwater and sewage systems must develop long-term, combined sewer overflow control plans that similarly contain requirements sufficient to meet water quality standards.

Although the existing requirements have not been vigorously or evenly enforced, they have spurred a number of communities to incorporate the types of controls that ultimately need to be adopted at the national level—including quantitative limits on stormwater retention volume for new development and redevelopment sites, and requirements to improve the existing built environment to reduce runoff volume and pollution levels. State pollution control officials and municipal sewer system operators must enforce these requirements, especially as communities await EPA's improved national rules and especially if those reformed rules do not address all important stormwater pollution sources. NRDC has been working with states, municipalities, businesses, and citizens in many communities to promote these principles. Some examples of cities and states taking steps to meet clean water requirements with green infrastructure are discussed below.

woman with child

Paul RiderAlthough schools represent only 2 percent of impervious cover in the combined sewer area, Philadelphia's Water Department believes the high visibility and educational opportunities associated with schools make them important places to showcase green infrastructure.

Philadelphia: To address chronic pollution problems related to combined sewer overflows, Philadelphia has established the "Green City, Clean Waters" program, an ambitious effort focused on green infrastructure solutions that will require the retrofit of nearly 10,000 acres of impervious surface on both public and private property over the next 25 years. Enforceable targets—both for acres of green infrastructure retrofits and for measurable reductions in sewage overflow pollution—are embodied in a state consent order and will be incorporated into the city's Clean Water Act permits. As part of this program, the city has established a requirement that new development and redevelopment projects infiltrate the first inch of runoff on-site. The city has also adopted a stormwater fee structure that provides a substantial credit (up to nearly 80 percent) for nonresidential property owners who can install retrofits to manage the first inch of rainfall over their entire parcel on-site, with no discharge.

New York: In a 2012 state consent order, New York City committed to investing more than $1 billion in green infrastructure–based controls to reduce combined sewer overflows. Importantly, the consent order includes a requirement that the city use green infrastructure retrofits to manage one inch of runoff from 10 percent of the impervious acreage in its combined sewer service area by 2030, with interim targets for 2015, 2020, and 2025. Runoff can be managed using either retention, which is a superior means of addressing stormwater issues, or detention, with delayed release to the sewer system. These commitments have been incorporated into Clean Water Act permits, even as the city continues comprehensive planning efforts to reduce its sewer overflows and to establish long-term green infrastructure and water quality goals.

poruous contrete sidewalk

©NYC Environment ProtectionPorous concrete sidewalk Paerdegat Basin, CS Detention facility, Brooklyn, New York

New York State's general statewide stormwater permit refers to a stormwater design manual that calls for development projects to retain on-site the 90th percentile storm. The manual, however, sets a less stringent standard for redevelopment sites, and the permit does not unambiguously require that the manual's standards be met. Also notable is that the statewide permit requires some municipalities discharging runoff to severely polluted waterways to develop "retrofit plans" to reduce pollution from existing developed areas. However, for other municipalities discharging to similarly polluted waters, the permit does not require a decrease in current pollution levels. In sum, the New York State requirements are progressive in many respects but should be strengthened to ensure protection of local waters.

green rooftop

©Capitol GreenroofsTo help incentivize privately financed green roofs, Washington, D.C.'s Department of the environment initiated a green roof subsidy program. the Department provides a rebate of $3 per square foot for installed green roofs; as a result, more than 50,000 square feet of green roof projects are under construction. the rebate has since grown to $5 per square foot.

Washington, D.C.: The city operates a separate storm sewer system that conveys stormwater runoff independently from sewage over much of the city. Its stormwater permit requires new development and redevelopment projects to retain 1.2 inches of rainfall from each storm event. Recently proposed regulations to implement the permit's requirements would establish a first-of-its-kind program that sets retention standards and a volume credit system that allows some of the retention obligation to be met off-site. This program still must be significantly improved to ensure that the draft regulations fully implement the requirements of the Clean Water Act, but it could be used to target critical sources of runoff and pollution to the region's waters.

California: Clean Water Act permits in the San Francisco Bay region, Los Angeles and Orange Counties, the San Diego region, and smaller communities statewide all require new development and redevelopment projects to retain the runoff produced by the 85th percentile storm event. Stormwater permits in California have also begun to promote stormwater capture as a means of increasing local water supplies, something that is critical to the state's well-being, highlighting the ability of local permits to adapt to specific conditions in the region they cover. Although the 85th percentile standard is not as stringent as requirements in some other parts of the country, California's Central Coast region has proposed retention of the 95th percentile storm event based on regional predevelopment hydrology and the feasibility of meeting the standard.

placeholder image

The City of Portland is taking a holistic approach toward improving the health of the local watershed with the Brooklyn creek Basin Program. the program introduces the first prototype for "green" main streets in the country, manages more than 1 million gallons of stormwater runoff, and creates 126 jobs during construction.

Portland, Oregon: Portland established a comprehensive stormwater management program to comply with its NPDES permit, which includes design standards for source control devices as well as best management practices for reducing stormwater pollution. Portland's runoff retention standard prioritizes the use of green infrastructure over all other control measures for new and redevelopment projects involving as little as 500 square feet of impervious area. The city also requires the development of a retrofit plan for existing impervious areas and is implementing programs to replace city-owned impervious areas along streets and on municipal building roofs.

Milwaukee: The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) considers green infrastructure to be a key component of its 2035 Vision for zero basement backups, zero overflows, and improved water quality. MMSD recently released a draft regional green infrastructure plan with a goal to capture 740 million gallons of rainwater per storm event, the equivalent of capturing the first 0.5 inch of rain. In addition, the MMSD's 2012 clean water permit requires the district to add one million gallons of green infrastructure capacity to the region on an annual basis.

bio-retention swales

©MMSD Graphics DepartmentBio-retention swales for stormwater treatment along grange avenue in the Village of Greendale, Milwaukee.

Cleveland: A federal consent decree with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) to address the flow of untreated sewage into Cleveland's waterways and Lake Erie requires NEORSD to invest at least $42 million in green infrastructure projects to annually capture 44 million gallons of CSO discharges. The decree also enables NEORSD to look for opportunities to propose additional green infrastructure in exchange for reducing the scope of conventional, or "gray," infrastructure projects.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago: Compared with the green infrastructure investment many of the cities and utilities identified above are making to meet clean water requirements, a proposed consent decree settlement between EPA and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD)4 is a disappointment. For example, the consent decree contains a generally-stated requirement that MWRD develop 10 million gallons in retention capacity using green infrastructure by 2015. But without robust modeling and targeting of the development of specific green infrastructure measures—neither of which is required in the development of MWRD's green infrastructure plan—there's no basis to assume that the overall retention capacity requirement will actually be implemented strategically where needed to achieve its goal "to reduce CSO discharges, localized flooding and stormwater impacts."5 Neither does the consent decree require—as do other cities'—post-construction monitoring to assess its effectiveness.

These local and state efforts, although surely in need of further improvement, are critical to advancing stormwater pollution control efforts. They help serve as a platform for development of a national rule as the EPA continues to contemplate revisions to its regulations, and they ensure that important runoff sources that may not be covered by a national rule are addressed. Moreover, current law empowers pollution control officials to address specific local water quality needs.

A final tool that the EPA and states have available under current law is a provision that stormwater sources that contribute to water quality problems or are significant pollution sources must implement pollution controls. The EPA must follow these requirements, starting with sources discharging to waterways that are already too polluted for activities for which the state has designated them.

Ensure That Long-term Financing Is Available for Stormwater Infrastructure Improvements

Congress should help states and communities make the necessary investments in stormwater infrastructure by substantially increasing the federal resources available to meet clean water needs. Specifically, the federal government should increase its annual contribution to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF), which provides critical assistance for projects that repair and rebuild failing water and wastewater infrastructure but which has been a target for cuts during recent federal budget debates. It should also address this issue for the long term, through the creation of a trust fund or other dedicated source of clean water funding.

Cities and states must also do their part to ensure that adequate funding exists to support local stormwater management programs. States, which administer federal monies under the SRF, should ensure that there are no eligibility hurdles for municipalities to implement a range of green infrastructure projects with SRF funds. Moreover, states should proactively encourage applicants to seek funding for such projects, learning from the states that most successfully implemented the SRF Green Project Reserve under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.6 States can also establish their own dedicated sources of funding to support environmental improvements like green infrastructure.

Further, states should ensure that cities are authorized to establish financing structures (such as stormwater utilities) that can both generate public revenues for stormwater infrastructure and stimulate private investment in green infrastructure retrofits. Cities should use such authority—as more than a thousand already do—to charge private properties a stormwater fee based on the amount of impervious surface area on the property, with the proceeds applied toward the capital and operating expenses associated with publicly owned stormwater infrastructure.7 These fee systems often include a credit or discount component whereby customers pay smaller fees if they install qualifying green infrastructure practices on their properties that reduce runoff into the public storm sewer system. Particularly when coupled with innovative financing methods that have been used to spur investment in energy efficiency—and/or when coupled with additional financial incentives—such fee-and-credit systems could lure billions of dollars in private investment nationwide, which would offset a portion of the costs otherwise borne by public agencies.

Finally, states and local governments should explore the use of public-private partnership structures (including so-called pay-for-performance mechanisms) to build and maintain new green stormwater infrastructure. This approach has the potential to deploy large amounts of private capital in ways that may be able to accelerate implementation of green infrastructure retrofits while achieving cost savings for municipalities.8

Improve Public Health Protections Through Recreational Water Quality Criteria

The EPA is the government agency responsible for ensuring that recreational waters are safe. Unfortunately, the agency's recently adopted allowable bacteria levels—called "criteria" in the Clean Water Act—in recreational waters miss a critical opportunity to better protect the public from the dangers of swimming in polluted water.

Risk of Swimming in Polluted Waters

Illnesses associated with swimming or otherwise recreating in polluted water include gastrointestinal upset, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, upper respiratory tract infections, meningitis, and hepatitis. Children are especially vulnerable, in part because they tend to submerge their heads more often than adults and are more likely to swallow water in large volumes when swimming. The most common health complaint is gastrointestinal illness, which typically involves symptoms such as vomiting, fever, stomach pain, and diarrhea.

In 2000, Congress enacted the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act), requiring the EPA to modernize criteria for water quality that would protect beach users from illnesses caused by pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. The criteria were to be based on, among other things, the results of recent public health studies required by the BEACH Act. The EPA updated these criteria in 2012. However, its 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria are inadequate and fail to protect public health in at least three ways.

First, the EPA's criteria do not protect against single-day exposures to pathogens. The EPA allows water quality averaging over a period of 30 days and permits periodic exceedances of what was once defined as a single-sample maximum for allowable pollution. This approach allows bacterial levels to repeatedly exceed pathogen exposure limits that the EPA has determined are unsafe. Swimmers using beaches vulnerable to dangerous but short-lived fluctuations in water quality—caused by sewer overflows after rainstorms, for example—are especially at risk. These swimmers do not swim on an "average" day measured over a 30-day period, nor are they aware that they may be swimming on a day when a periodic exceedance is allowed; they swim on the single day they choose and, on that day, they risk greater or lesser degrees of exposure to a variety of illnesses. The EPA's criteria ignore the health risks faced by swimmers from daily exposures to pathogens.

Second, EPA's allowable risk rate for illness is unacceptably high. The agency's 2012 criteria include a set of values corresponding to a risk rate for gastrointestinal illness of 36 illnesses per 1,000 swimmers in marine and fresh waters. In other words, the EPA has deemed it acceptable for 36 of every 1,000 beachgoers to become ill with gastroenteritis—including vomiting, nausea, or stomachache—from swimming in waters that just meet its criteria values. The EPA's only apparent justification for the 36/1,000 illness rate is that a comparable value had been included in its 1986 criteria and therefore has a "history of acceptance by the public." But the fact is that most people have no idea what level of risk they are taking when swimming in waters that are supposed to be safe. EPA's reliance on the public's so-called acceptance of this risk is misguided.

Third, the EPA fails to adequately address the risk of non-gastrointestinal illnesses that result from recreating in contaminated waters. Non-gastrointestinal effects of pathogen exposure include rashes; upper respiratory illness; and ear, eye, and sinus infections, all of which are commonly contracted by recreational swimmers. The EPA did not properly account for swimmers' risks of contracting non-gastrointestinal illnesses in preparing the 2012 criteria. Instead, it simply assumed that non-gastrointestinal illnesses will occur at a lower rate than gastrointestinal illnesses, and a measurement of one could therefore be a proxy for the other. Whatever incidental protection the EPA's approach may offer is insufficient to guard against the non-gastrointestinal effects of pathogen exposure.

The EPA needs to correct the 2012 Recreational Water Quality Criteria so that the above issues are addressed.

Ensure Adequate Funding for State Monitoring and Notification Programs

The Obama administration should maintain funding for coastal and Great Lakes states to monitor beachwater quality and inform the public about health risks. States' monitoring and notification efforts are critical safeguards that protect more than 100 million beachgoers and swimmers across the nation from waterborne diseases. Monitoring programs help states determine whether there are bacteria in the water that can make people sick, while notification programs let the public know when beaches are closed or present potentially dangerous swimming conditions. Both types of programs are needed to keep families safe and healthy.

States do not have the financial resources to run these programs entirely on their own, without federal assistance. Historically, the EPA's BEACH Act grant program has provided nearly $10 million each year to help states keep their monitoring and notification programs and up and running.9 Though these small grants are less than Congress authorized, they represent critical investments in safeguards for our nation's $90 billion coastal tourism economy, which generates nearly 2 million jobs at more than 100,000 businesses each year.10

However, the president's budget proposals for the past two years have suggested the elimination of all federal funding for the BEACH Act grant program. Last year the program was saved when Congress did not adopt the president's proposal, but the program is at risk again this year. If BEACH Act grants are eliminated, many states will have to reduce their beach monitoring efforts, and others—including Florida, Alabama, and Maine, whose programs are funded solely by federal grants—may be forced to shut down their monitoring and notification programs entirely.

With thousands of beach closures and advisories issued last year, now is not the time to stop monitoring beachwater and notifying the public of danger. The administration should not jeopardize the health of millions of people, billions of dollars in economic activity, and millions of jobs in order to shave a tiny fraction off of the EPA's budget. It just doesn't make sense. The administration should restore EPA funding of the BEACH Act grant program at least at the previous level of $9.8 million.

Require Pollution Controls for Discharges into All Tributary Streams, and Protect Pollution-Filtering Wetlands

Overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, guaranteeing that all of our nation's waters would be covered by a suite of pollution control programs. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 undermined this bedrock environmental legislation by creating uncertainty about what types of waters are protected by the law. Agency "guidance" issued under former president George W. Bush further limited the ability of pollution control officials to protect our waters, making implementation of the law difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. As a result, it became unclear whether the law protected a variety of waters, especially those that are geographically isolated from others or that lack permanent flow. Over the past decade, tens of millions of wetland acres, which provide crucial flood protection as well as wildlife habitat, and about 2 million miles of streams, which provide drinking water for 117 million people, have been in legal limbo. Without clear rules protecting critical waterways, it is difficult to keep our waters—and our beaches—clean.

To address this problem, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed new guidelines that better protect critical waters and are more faithful to the Clean Water Act's history and purpose.11 The agencies released those guidelines for public feedback in 2011 and received more than 230,000 comments, the vast majority of which were positive. Despite this overwhelming support, the Obama administration has not released the guidelines, which means that industrial polluters can continue to dump chemicals, bacteria, and other waste into many small streams and wetlands without penalty; that waste can then wash into bigger lakes, rivers, and even oceans. According to The New York Times, EPA regulators reported that in a four-year period, more than 1,500 major pollution investigations involving oil spills, carcinogenic chemicals, and dangerous bacteria in lakes, rivers, and other water bodies had been suspended or dropped.12

As this report goes to press, the president has still not released these guidelines to strengthen clean water protections. We continue to call on the administration to do so, and to follow the release of the guidance with durable rules.

Improve the Resiliency of Wastewater Infrastructure to Coastal Flooding

Hurricane Sandy caused scores of sewage treatment plants in eight states—from Virginia to Rhode Island—to release 11 billion gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage into waterways (and, in some cases, city streets). Nearly all of that spilled sewage (94%) resulted from coastal flood damage rather than excessive rainfall. This includes storm surges that overwhelmed treatment plants and pumping stations, as well as power outages that disabled facilities.13

Wastewater treatment plants are often sited in low-lying areas along the coast, since sewers are typically gravity-fed. In the face of rising sea levels and the increased frequency and intensity of storms that climate change will bring, these facilities, with the assistance of state and federal funding, need to improve their resiliency to coastal flood events.

Specifically, wastewater utilities immediately should start to implement the strategies highlighted in NRDC's recent report Getting Climate Smart: A Water Preparedness Guide for State Action.14 Such strategies include:

  • Evaluate flood-proofing vulnerable wastewater facilities by raising the elevation of structures, installing watertight doors and windows, replacing wet/dry well pumps with submersible pumps, increasing emergency power backup for all key equipment operations, and relocating vulnerable equipment.
  • Update water and wastewater emergency response and maintenance procedures to prepare for more common and more extensive coastal flooding of vulnerable infrastructure.
  • Plan for alternative power supplies to support operations in case of loss of power.
  • Install effluent pumping systems for wastewater treatment plants affected by sea level rise, and ensure the adequacy of emergency generator systems.
  • Relocate high-risk facilities over the long term, but build berms as a short-term protective measure.
  1. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Pub. L. 110-140, sec. 438 (December 19, 2007).
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Technical Guidance on Implementing the Stormwater Runoff Requirements for Federal Projects Under Section 438 of the Energy Independence and Security Act," at 12 (December 2009).
  3. U.S. EPA, Office of Water, "Stormwater Rulemaking: Listening Sessions," web presentation (February 2010),
  4. "Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS): June 2013 Motion to Enter Decree," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency;
  5. United States and State of Illinois v. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, case 1:11-cv-08859 (N.D. Ill. 2011), consent decree,
  6. U.S. EPA, ARRA—Clean Water Sate Revolving Fund—Green Project Reserve Report (June 2012),
  7. Western Kentucky University, Stormwater Utility Survey 2012,
  8. See NRDC, "Creating Clean Water Cash Flows: Developing Private Markets for Green Stormwater Infrastructure in Philadelphia," (January 2013). See also NYS 2100 Commission, "Recommendations to Improve the Strength and Resilience of the Empire State's Infrastructure," (2013),
  9. U.S. EPA, EPA Grants Available to Implement Beach Monitoring and Public Notification Programs in 2012, fact sheet (January 2012),
  10. National Ocean Economics Program, Ocean Economy Sector & Industry Data, (search results for economic data in all coastal states' tourism and recreation sectors in 2010).
  11. U.S. EPA, Clean Water Act Definition of 'Waters of the United States,'
  12. Charles Duhigg and Janet Roberts, "Rulings Restrict Clean Water Act, Foiling E.P.A.," New York Times, February 28, 2010;
  13. Climate Central, "Hurricane Sandy's Untold Filthy Legacy: Sewage,"
  14. American Rivers & NRDC, "Getting Climate Smart: A Water Preparedness Guide for State Action," (April 2013)


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