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Infrastructure report card reveals pressing issues in Virginia’s water and sewer systems

Photo courtesy - Miriam Alonso, Pexels
Photo courtesy - Miriam Alonso, Pexels

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues an annual report card on the nation’s infrastructure, including water and sewer systems. Overall, the experts give them a C-plus, and at Virginia Tech a professor of civil and environmental engineering says supplying clean water is a bigger challenge than ever.

"Because there’s so much organic matter, fertilizers, salts, organic and inorganic contaminants including pesticides going into rivers and lakes. It’s getting more challenging and more costly to process that into drinking water," says Professor Andrea Dietrich.

This story was reported and written by Radio IQ

She warns, for example, that food additives are building up in our water.

"It is a multi-billion dollar business, and multi-billion tons of artificial sweeteners are produced and used throughout the world and in Virginia, and those are pretty much non bio-degradable."

In particular, sucralose and acesulfame potassium or acesulfame K. She adds that treating animal waste produces byproducts that could be harmful to our heatlh.

"It creates a chemical reaction that produces things called disinfection byproducts which are not good for humans, and so the best way to control that is to limit the organic matter that gets into the streams and lakes from agriculture and industry."

Fortunately, scientists are finding better ways to filter, to soak up or neutralize pollutants according to Francis De Los Reyes, a professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University

"A lot of the good research is actually happening in Virginia, so there are very advanced utilities," he says. "Hampton Roads Sanitary District for example is at the forefront of some of these technologies."

But, of course, there’s a catch.

"The issue is, do we have the money to upgrade our treatment plants to put in these new technologies?" De Los Reyes wonders. "They can be expensive."

And he notes that not everyone will benefit from these new methods of cleaning water and treating sewage.

"A quarter of the population are not served by centralized water and wastewater systems," he explains. "They have septic tanks for their wastewater or they have private wells, and we’re talking about tens of millions of Americans. Pretty much if your septic tank is failing, it’s your problem, and you’ve got to fix it."

Professor Dietrich points out that these decentralized systems for handling water put all of us at risk when floods strike.

"Flood control is really a water quantity issue, but depending on where those flood waters go, it’s a water quality issue. If it overflows a sewage treatment plant, or if it overflows a detention pond on a farm, it’s a big water quality issue."

The governor’s budget does contain substantial funding for flood control including $50 million for the city of Richmond’s combined sewer overflow program and nearly $74 million for the Norfolk Coastal Storm Risk Management Project. There’s also $200 million to help farmers reduce runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous – fertilizers that lead to algae blooms and dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay.

One advocate – the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – welcomed that news but suggested the new budget may not contain enough money for wastewater treatment and urged the legislature to remedy that shortfall.