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Houston Matters

How is the City Addressing Thousands of Sewage Overflows?

A nonprofit environmental group is taking the City of Houston to task over some 9,300 violations of the Clean Water Act over the last five years.


View of Buffalo Bayou from Allen Parkway.


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The City of Houston is being taken to task for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act over the course of five years.

The nonprofit group Bayou City Waterkeeper served the city with a 60-day notice of intent to sue over more than 9,000 sewage discharge violations the city had self-reported. The attorney representing Bayou City Waterkeeper suggests the problem could actually be more severe than the city has admitted.

What exactly is happening in these sewage discharges and why are so many occurring? Have our major floods affected and exacerbated this problem?

In the audio above, Houston Matters producer Michael Hagerty learns more about the violations and their ramifications from Tracy Hester, who teaches environmental law at the UH Law Center.

In response to the letter of intent to sue, the City of Houston issued the following statement:

In response to a letter from Bayou City Waterkeeper providing a 60-day notice of its intent to sue the City regarding Sanitary Sewer Overflows ("SSOs"), Mayor Sylvester Turner today provided an update on the status of the City's long-term negotiations with the EPA in connection with improvements of its sanitary sewer system to address SSOs.

The City and the EPA have been negotiating the details of a plan for several years, but the damage to the system from Hurricane Harvey and the need to coordinate with FEMA impacted the discussions. Negotiations are now resuming on a plan to supplement the City's continuation of its work to upgrade its aging sewer system to keep up with the increasing demands of Houston's rapidly-growing population and to provide enhanced service to the ratepayers.

The City is reviewing Waterkeeper's letter but believes that any issues raised will be addressed in a plan ultimately agreed to with the EPA and the State – the governmental agencies that regulate SSOs. The City's negotiations with EPA are part of a national program that EPA has been implementing with numerous cities across the nation to reduce SSOs under the Clean Water Act. The City's analysis of SSO data from 2015 and 2016 indicates that most of the SSOs are the result of grease and other materials causing blockages in the collection system.

Houston's sewer system is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the nation, with more than 6,000 miles of sewer mains, nearly 400 lift stations in its collection system, and 39 wastewater treatment plants. While the City has been negotiating the agreement with the EPA to formalize a program to address additional system performance, the City had already invested billions of dollars two other programs over the last 20 years to enhance the sanitary sewer systems. The Greater Wastewater Program completed in 1997 cost $2.2 billion and involved 430 projects in constructing relief sewers, sewer rehabilitation, and upgrading or replacing lift stations. In 2005, the City also entered into an agreement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to spend an additional $755 million to upgrade, clean and renew additional sewer pipes and infrastructure and completed that work ahead of schedule in July 2016.

The plan that the City is negotiating with EPA includes additional investment into its wastewater infrastructure, as well as a supplemental environmental project to replace defective private sewer lines in a low-income area of the City where laterals have caused or contributed to SSOs at no cost to the homeowners.

The City's public outreach program to increase awareness of residents and commercial establishments of the need to avoid putting grease down kitchen drains – which can build up in pipes and cause blockages and overflows – is also a continued focus that will lead to direct results benefiting all ratepayers as grease blockages are the leading cause of sanitary sewer overflows. The City will also continue its on-going efforts to educate residents how they can help minimize sewer overflows by ensuring that downspouts, sump pumps, area drains and other features designed to remove rainwater runoff from private residences are not being connected to the sanitary sewer system, as this will contribute to overflow events.

"The City of Houston has devoted more than $3 billion in the last 30 years to upgrade and improve its massive wastewater and sewer system infrastructure. The City remains committed to spending more as part of the continuing need to renew and upgrade one of the largest sewer systems in the country for the benefit of our ratepayers," said Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock. "The City continues to identify and invest in new technologies and techniques that will enhance future performance as well."

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