Paying the Price for Cleaner Water

Last week, Prescott’s City Council voted to increase water and sewer rates for residents. While no one is cheering the effect that higher utility bills will have on their pocketbooks, we can now expect to see the upgrades that Prescott’s sewer infrastructure so desperately needs. I’ve spent the last 1+ years trying to understand the roots of our surface water quality problems and Prescott’s aging sewer infrastructure is a source that can’t be overlooked.

Here’s the situation: Prescott’s 300+ miles of wastewater collection infrastructure relies primarily on gravity to transport solid waste to the primary wastewater treatment plant located above Watson Lake at the base of the watershed. Many of the sewer lines, sewer mains, and utility holes are located in the creek beds or adjacent to the creeks. This becomes an acute water quality problem if a pipe leaks or breaks or if sewage overflows at a manhole. With some of this infrastructure as old as 120 years and even recent infrastructure in need of upgrades, sewer overflows are not entirely uncommon. During a heavy winter storm in January 2010, stormwater inundated aging sewer lines, resulting in sewer overflows from five utility holes along Granite Creek and Miller Creek. The cumulative effect of the inflow and infiltration forced the sewage plant to discharge three million gallons of partially treated effluent into nearby Granite Creek just above Watson Lake.

What’s more startling is that Prescott is not alone in grappling with its sewage. All across the U.S., rapid growth in cities has resulted in greater runoff of rainwater and waste, overwhelming sewer systems which then discharge sewage directly to nearby waterways. In the Toxic Waters series, the New York Times reported that in the last 3 years more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems have violated the law by discharging untreated or partially treated sewage directly to water bodies. And this is in some of our nation’s major cities!

It can be argued that with proper planning for its growth, Prescott wouldn’t have to ask residents to pay more during tough economic times or face the serious environmental and public health risks associated with untreated sewage flowing into our creeks. But consider this: New York City’s sewage system (14 treatment plants and 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater a day) overflows essentially every other time it rains. The job of fixing Prescott’s sewer system is downright feasible in comparison.

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