Today, NACWA in conjunction with the Congressional Clean Water Caucus hosted a briefing entitled Building Water Resiliency—From Wet Weather to Drought that highlighted community resiliency efforts being led by the municipal clean water sector. Participating in the briefing were representatives from several utilities, including my agency — the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD).
All across the United States, clean water agencies are undertaking efforts to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather conditions. In arid parts of the country, clean water utilities are becoming engaged in water reuse – turning what was viewed in decades past as “wastewater” into a resource that can augment limited water supplies.
At the other extreme are wet weather storm events, which are becoming more severe and more frequent in many parts of the country, including St. Louis. Flooding acutely threatens vital wastewater treatment plants in these areas – which by design are located at the lowest elevation point in their communities, often along the coastline or waterfront.
In late 2015, MSD was again put to the wet weather test. The utility was in the midst of a 23-year, approximately $5 billion consent decree capital program to eliminate and reduce sewer overflows when the region closed out the year with a historic rain event – 9 inches of rain over 3 days, with one day alone brining 5 inches. In addition to overwhelming parts of our collection system, the rain caused flash flooding along all types of waterways – from small creeks and streams running through residential backyards to the Meramec River, one of the St. Louis area’s three major rivers. Flash flooding – including along the Meramec, which rose 25 feet in three days – incapacitated two of MSD’s seven wastewater treatment facilities and threatened thousands of homes with flooding and erosion.
Although challenging, MSD’s response – including ongoing efforts, such as a robust Operation & Maintenance program, overflow reduction capital projects, and a green infrastructure/rainscaping program – helped mitigate the impacts of the deluge. As compared to a slightly lesser, but still significant, rain/flood event that took place in September 2008 – when remnants of Hurricane Ike swept through the St. Louis area – overflows were reduced by 45%; basement backups were down by32%; and overall customer service problem calls were 56% lower.
While on the road to recovery from this rain event, the District still has challenges ahead. Of critical importance is securing a long-term funding mechanism that will allow the District to operate as a full stormwater management utility on a service area wide basis.
In short, my utility’s story is just one example of our clean water sector being in a period of significant transition – through which utilities are helping lead their communities in becoming more resilient to weather extremes and more sustainable in their use of natural resources. While we work day-in and day-out on the ground to addresses challenges and changes (and, in the process, become Utilities of the Future), it is also vital that we share our experiences with national policymakers. These policymakers may be far removed from our operations and challenges on the ground, but they still have significant influence on the regulations we follow and the financing we have available.
Regardless of the political situation in Washington – and the debates as to whether and why the climate is changing – the reality is that many utilities are seeing more extreme storms and more extreme water scarcity. We are obligated to prepare for these situations, ensure we are able to continue achieving our fundamental Clean Water Act obligations, and provide the critical public health and environmental services that our communities deserve.
Lance LeComb is the Manager of Public Information and Spokesperson for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD). He is responsible for the development, implementation, and management of MSD’s strategic and tactical public information functions, including media relations, stakeholder engagement, local government affairs, issues management, and crisis communications. Lance joined MSD in October 2003 and has over 20 years of experience in public affairs, media relations, stakeholder relationship building, and issues management. Previously, he served as Vice Chair of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies’ Communications and Public Relations Committee.
Lance graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan; earned a graduate certificate in local government management from the University of Missouri-St. Louis; and is a graduate of the Water & Wastewater Leadership Center located at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.