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Out of sight, never out of mind

Posted July 21, 2017 in Articles

Infrastructure is a hot topic these days. From the Palmetto State’s headline-grabbing debate over raising the gas tax to improve roads to a national emphasis on improving infrastructure, it seems everyone is interested in the systems that most people take for granted.

But not all infrastructure systems are created equal. You probably notice every pothole on your way to work, yet how often do you stop to think about the complexity of our wastewater treatment system? Just because an infrastructure system is out of sight, doesn’t mean it should be out of mind.

Few systems fit the “out of sight, out of mind” model better than a modern sewage system. Not everyone drives, but pretty much everyone does flush. And until something breaks, sending hundreds or thousands of gallons of untreated waste into rivers or lakes, or backs up into your house, does the public ever think about what happened to the water that magically exited their households.

We at Renewable Water Resources (ReWa) cannot and will not take our wastewater infrastructure for granted. We are charged with ensuring our system can always handle the needs of a growing population. It can be a daunting task at times. That is why we support legislation such as the Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act, which would provide local communities with increased flexibility when complying with Clean Water Act requirements for updates to water infrastructure projects. Consider these facts, from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2017 Infrastructure Report Card:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency estimates $271 billion will be needed for wastewater infrastructure over the next 25 years
  • Water and wastewater services receive less than 5 percent of the funds the federal government earmarks for all major infrastructure categories
  • Local governments rely on funding from a mix of sources, primarily in the form of sewer rates and dedicated fees such as those for stormwater or watershed restoration, local taxes, grants, and federal money

The following excerpt from the ASCE’s 2017 report card accurately describes the situation we face in the Upstate: “As cities continue to experience population growth, particularly in the South and West, new housing developments are constructed, and rural households switch from septic systems to public sewers, pressure on existing centralized systems and treatment plant infrastructure will require billions of dollars in new investment to meet federal regulatory requirements.”

The ASCE gives the sewer infrastructure in our nation a D+ on its 2017 report card, and while the organization did not provide information specific to South Carolina, ReWa is committed to maintaining our wastewater infrastructure at a much higher level: the level that our customers have come to expect and deserve.

To do this, we are working aggressively to address concerns of capacity before capacity becomes a problem. We have several projects either currently underway or on the drawing board that will help us continue to stay ahead of demand, with probably the most visible of these being Dig Greenville: a $46 million project to construct an almost 1.5-mile sewer tunnel 100 feet below ground between Hudson Street and Cleveland Park. This tunnel will be created using a special drill that will bore underneath downtown Greenville for 36 months. But, Dig Greenville is more than just a big drill boring under one of the nation’s leading downtowns. This is a testament to ReWa’s commitment to the community and the environment.

Dig Greenville is needed because the current system for the Reedy River Basin, which affects Greenville all the way to Travelers Rest, is nearing capacity. If nothing is done, economic development is threatened because no additional wastewater flow can be added to the sewer lines. While the project is a long-term fix, Dig Greenville will also meet immediate needs by providing an increased buffer against sewer surcharges due to inflow and infiltration during rain events.

While all of the current and planned projects require considerable investment, we cannot afford to be “penny wise and pound foolish”, as the old saying goes. We have to continue to make the investments necessary to keeping our wastewater system working efficiently. ReWa’s upcoming five year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) estimates around 300 million dollars will be needed to fund infrastructure improvements and future capacity needs.

ReWa serves more than 400,000 industrial, commercial and residential customers throughout parts of five Upstate counties with one goal: To promote a cleaner environment and protect the public health and water quality of the Upstate waterways while providing and developing the necessary sewer infrastructure to support our growing needs.

As we move forward with these projects to ensure we can meet our goal for generations to come, we appreciate your understanding the complexity of this undertaking, and hope that you appreciate the miracle that happens every time you flush!

Graham W. Rich, PE, BCEE is the chief executive officer of Renewable Water Resources (ReWa), whose mission is to improve our community’s quality of life by transforming wastewater into renewable resources using responsible and innovative solutions. ReWa serves more than 400,000 industrial, commercial and residential customers in Greenville County and parts of Anderson, Spartanburg, Pickens and Laurens Counties. For more information about the Agency, visit rewaonline.org.