Climate change brings a perfect storm of raw sewage and rainfall in cities that can least afford it

Martha Arencibia watched from her front porch in Paterson, New Jersey, as the skies unleashed a torrent of rain that overwhelmed the storm drains on her street.

Within hours, standing water that started as puddles grew into a swiftly moving current that carried vehicles away. Across Paterson, the downpour stranded drivers and flooded homes, businesses and schools. In the nearly five decades she has lived in the historic, ethnically diverse city, Arencibia had never seen such an inundation.

What she could not see was the trouble unfolding under the streets.

Paterson, like 728 other U.S. communities, suffers from an antiquated sewage system that combines rainwater, snowmelt and toilet waste into the same pipes, then discharges it all into rivers, lakes and even homes when filled to capacity.

The storm that day in August 2018 dumped 5 inches of rain in Paterson. When the city’s sewage system could take no more, it belched wastewater into the nearby Passaic River, as well as onto the streets and back through basement toilets, including several in Arencibia’s neighborhood.

The stench of raw sewage, she said, lasted for days.

Flooded streets are seen in Patterson, New Jersey on Aug. 11, 2018.

Stretched beyond their lifespans by overdevelopment and population growth, these so-called combined sewer systems altogether spilled 850 billion gallons of raw sewage into the open waters in 2004 alone, the last time the federal government estimated it. Rife with feces, pathogens, debris and toxic pollutants, their discharges pose a risk to both human health and the environment.

But, now, a new threat looms as the warming planet produces heavier and more frequent storms in the same regions of the country saddled with combined sewer systems.

USA TODAY spent a year investigating how climate change is exacerbating overflows, parsing through national rainfall data and reports of spilled sewage in dozens of states and cities. It found that, across the board, communities saddled with these systems now face harder and more frequent rainfalls that can lead to even more toxic spills.

“It’s not even theoretical, they’re already experiencing an increase in rainfall,” said Becky Hammer, deputy director for federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And their plans were not designed to accommodate it.”

The spills can contaminate drinking water, befoul shellfish and contribute to algae blooms that deplete oxygen levels in lakes across the United States and in iconic water bodies like the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay. Sewage can also back up into people’s homes, prompt beach closures and sicken millions through exposure, according to scientific estimates.

In interviews with four dozen engineers, clean water advocates, impacted residents, and municipal and utility officials, nearly all made clear one thing: Without significant changes to federal policy and infrastructure funding, climate change will keep driving overflows and sending sewage into the nation’s rivers, lakes, and homes for decades to come.

Among the investigation’s findings:

  • Most combined sewer systems exist in the same regions inundated with climate-driven rainfall extremes – the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast. An analysis by USA TODAY shows that 97% of cities with combined sewers have experienced an uptick in both annual precipitation and extreme rainfall over the past 30 years.

  • But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates combined sewer systems, tracks only the number of discharges and not the amount of sewage they release. No national data exists showing total discharges. The last time the EPA estimated total spillage was nearly two decades ago. At the time, its numbers showed, an average of 2.3 billion gallons of sewage-laden water entered the environment each day.

  • Critics also say the EPA also has done little to ensure cities with combined sewer systems prepare for a changing climate. Despite its own study that predicted more overflows from a warmer planet, the agency allows cities to use outdated rainfall data when planning upgrades. In the worst scenarios, that means some cities could see a nearly complete backslide in sewage overflows even after paying for expensive upgrades to stop them.

  • The cost of upgrading these systems often falls to those least able to afford it. Families in communities with combined sewers have disproportionately lower incomes and higher poverty rates than national averages. In many cities with the largest combined sewer systems, the majority of residents are Black or Latino. Expensive plans to fix combined sewers have led to a doubling or tripling of sewer rates in many of these places.

  • Those same cities are receiving little help from Congress, which has cut its investment in public sewer projects dramatically since the 1980s. Advocates and utility managers say nothing short of a massive re-investment of funding will bring sewer overflows under control without exacerbating water affordability problems.

When it passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, Congress sought to restore the health of America’s lakes, rivers and streams by regulating discharges of pollutants from multiple sources. The goal was to make every body of water safe enough for fishing and swimming.

As a part of that effort, the EPA turned its focus to combined sewers in the early 1990s, pressuring communities to upgrade their systems and reduce the number of discharges. Those reductions often aimed to limit discharges from several dozen a year to no more than five.

Although many cities, like Milwaukee and Chicago, invested billions of dollars into upgrading their combined sewer systems, nearly all were modeled on rainfall patterns of the last century. Climate change could lessen the effectiveness of some of those improvements, experts say.

Detroit, for example, has already spent $1.4 billion to fix its combined sewers. But the city discharged nearly 5 billion gallons of sewage-tainted water during the last week in June when damaging storms swept across Michigan.

At a press conference, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan expressed his frustration.

"The infrastructure in this country was built for the climate of the 20th century,” Duggan said. “It was not built for what we have today.”

Other communities have yet to begin fixing their combined sewers or are just getting started.

Paterson and 19 other New Jersey cities reached a deal with the state Department of Environmental Protection last year, agreeing to spend up to $2.7 billion to stop more than 23 billions gallons of overflowing wastewater.

But Arencibia’s street isn’t due for a fix until 2040, which would leave her vulnerable to growing deluges for nearly two decades.

Crews clean up mud on I-75 at I-696 near Detroit on Tuesday August 12, 2014. The day was one of the rainiest in Michigan history, with 4.57 inches recorded at Detroit Metro Airport.

“The water is getting higher,” Arencibia said. “We’re not addressing the situation.”

While many blame the EPA and municipal officials for this problem, others trace the origins of inaction back to Congress. In 1987, bipartisan legislation cut the federal government’s share of funding of sewer infrastructure from about 70% to less than 5% today.

That shifted the financial burden of cleansing sewage from the nation’s waterways from all Americans to just the residents of those communities with combined sewer systems. And this congressional change came just as urban tax bases eroded from white flight and deindustrialization.

In cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Cleveland, water and sewer bills have doubled or even tripled over the past few decades. The lack of funding has led to water affordability crises. In Baltimore alone, some 2,700 homeowners faced foreclosure for as little as $350 in missed water and sewer bills until the state passed a law banning the practice.

But the lack of money also means upgrades are often delayed or rolled out slowly, leaving cities vulnerable as climate change exposes the dilapidated infrastructure.

“If you don’t have the local tax base to support and provide dollars for capital improvements, then most often they won’t get made,” said Marccus Hendricks, a researcher and director of the Stormwater Infrastructure Resilience & Justice Lab at the University of Maryland.

A new climate

One week in early September 2018 showed the damage that deluges can bring to combined sewer systems.

A band of thunderstorms struck the small city of Lima, Ohio, on a Thursday, dropping 5 inches of rain in a matter of hours. The storm overwhelmed the community’s combined sewer system and spilled 92 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the Ottawa River.

Just two days later, the remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon reached the small city of Cumberland, Maryland, about 350 miles to the east. The Appalachian city also received 5 inches of rain, causing 121 million gallons of wastewater to discharge from its combined sewer system and spill into a branch of the Potomac River.

A car drives through a road as flood waters come in from Tropical Storm Gordon on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018 in Dauphin Island, Ala.

The next day, Gordon’s remnants dumped several more inches in Binghamton, New York. Some 117 million gallons of wastewater flowed into the Susquehanna River.

All three cities are in a swath of the country, stretching across much of the Midwest and Northeast, that has experienced the greatest increases in extreme rainfall events over the past 30 years.

Scientists attribute that to climate change. Higher temperatures mean the Gulf of Mexico, long a contributor of moisture that feeds the storms in those regions, is now producing even more moisture, generating more rain.

In addition, research shows that recent trends in the summertime movement of the jet stream, which moves from west to east across the country, can allow storms to slow or stall out more often over the Rust Belt, dumping even greater amounts of rain.

Traffic is rerouted around the intersection of the Arthur Gardner Parkway (Route 424) and South Poplar Street in Hazleton, Pa., after officials closed the road Wednesday, September 12, 2018, due to flooding conditions after heavy rains passed through the area.

Across the United States, 706 of the 728 cities and towns with combined sewer systems have seen both an annual increase in precipitation and an increase in the number of extreme deluges over the past three decades, according to a USA TODAY analysis of rainfall data compiled by climatologist Brian Brettschneider and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Because combined sewer systems were built generations ago, they’re found primarily in older cities like those across the Rust Belt, although they’re also found in places like Seattle and San Francisco.

Many such cities already struggled for decades to keep their sewers up to date because of increased urban development and runoff. But now the increased rainfall is taxing their sewer systems with more water.

“We are seeing larger storms more frequently, and with higher intensity,” said Devona Marshall, director of engineering and construction with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which serves Cleveland and surrounding communities. “But it’s also the aging infrastructure that’s out there ... and on top of it you had poor practices in development that also contribute to the problem. So it’s like this perfect storm.”

Cumberland, a city of 19,000, is nestled along a bend of the Potomac River in western Maryland. A historic log cabin in the city’s Riverside Park once served as a strategic military outpost for Gen. George Washington.

Now, water is often the adversary.

Over the course of 2018, a record 68 inches of rain fell on the city, a foot more than the prior record and nearly double the 20th century average of 37 inches. Several weeks after Gordon struck, a 4-inch rainstorm dumped another 100 million gallons of wastewater into a branch of the Potomac.

By the end of the year, a record half a billion gallons of wastewater overflowed into the river.

This year, Cumberland completed construction on a 5 million-gallon water storage facility. The city and those that feed into its sewage system are also upgrading their mains and pipes to further capture excess water and prevent overflows.

Visual Story: Our warming climate is having a dramatic impact on precipitation. What does the data tell us about your state?

But even with upgrades, the system fails to contain some deluges occurring now. This year, nearly a dozen significant rain events hit Cumberland, causing its combined sewer to discharge more than 10 million gallons into Wills Creek and more than 20 million into the Potomac River.

From there, the sewage travels downstream and eventually dumps out into the Chesapeake Bay, a historically-polluted waterbody that at least one researcher now worries will never return to ideal conditions because of climate change.

Bill Dennison, a professor of marine science at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said that torrential rainstorms wash pollutants like sewage and agricultural runoff into the bay’s watershed, making swimming unsafe, lowering oxygen levels, and killing off animals like the region’s renowned crab populations. The recent increase in such rain events acts as a deadweight on efforts to limit pollution.

“This is a vicious cycle going in the wrong direction,” Dennison said.

A warning unheeded

In the early 2000s, John Furlow was the water team leader in the EPA’s Global Change Research Program, studying how climate change might degrade rivers and lakes. He and a team of scientists compiled rainfall projections and modeled how an increase in extreme rainfall could impact hundreds of combined sewer systems across New England and the Midwest.

While models for the Northeast were too uncertain, the group found that in the Midwest, climate change could push beyond the capacity of infrastructure, spilling more sewage into lakes and rivers.

In the worst cases, they found, the increases could nearly double, meaning a city could invest heavily to fix overflows only to see no progress. Instead, if cities based their plans on updated models or built in extra capacity, they could account for climate change at “little additional cost,” the study’s authors wrote.

Foster Park golf course is flooded, in Fort Wayne, Ind., on 14, 2005.

The report, released in 2008, remains the EPA’s last comprehensive document studying how climate change could impact combined sewers. In the meantime, the EPA has made no changes to its regulations. Cities still regularly use rainfall data from the 20th century when planning sewer upgrades.

Fort Wayne, Indiana offers an example. When the city crafted its sewer upgrade plan two decades ago, planners selected 1995 as a "typical year" upon which to base rainfall projections while designing sewer upgrades. But the EPA never required an update, even as Fort Wayne broke ground four years ago on the biggest construction and public infrastructure project in the city's history.

The $188 million effort is designed to capture all but four overflows a year into the St. Marys and Maumee rivers and all but one into the St. Joseph River – down from a total of about 71 spills.

But annual rainfall totals have exceeded the 1995 benchmark of 33.18 inches in all but three of the past 25 years. Meanwhile, extreme rainfall has also increased. On average, Fort Wayne used to see three storms a year that would drop at least 1.3 inches of rain. Now, such storms typically occur seven times a year.

Lima, Ohio, began negotiating with the EPA in the 1990s on a fix to its combined sewer system. But it wasn’t until 2014 that the city finally agreed to a nearly $60 million plan. The majority – $40 million – was slated for a massive underground storage tank to hold 13 million gallons of wastewater and prevent it from spilling into the Ottawa River.

Under last century’s rainfall patterns, the design would stop all but five overflows a year. Shovels went in the ground in May 2018.

But less than four months later came the September storm that sent nearly a hundred million gallons of wastewater into the Ottawa River. The downpour was classified as a 1-in-500-year event. Just a few weeks later, another storm of the same magnitude struck the city.

How a summer of extreme weather reveals a stunning shift in the way rain falls in America.

To the town’s longtime mayor, David Berger, it all now feels precarious. The storage tank – the largest single public works project in the city’s history – came online earlier this year. It may already be obsolete.

“The frequency and the intensity of storm events is such that we may have undersized this $40 million investment,” Berger said. “So at the end, we may still be out of compliance. That’s a big problem.”

The EPA told USA TODAY it has taken several steps to account for climate change.

In 2014, the agency updated a modeling tool with future rainfall scenarios that cities can use – but are not required to use – when planning combined sewer upgrades, a spokesperson said. The agency has also worked directly with cities on advancing climate resiliency by providing technical assistance and tools and supporting green infrastructure. Largely pioneered in Philadelphia, the approach incorporates rain gardens, bioswales and other natural landscapes to capture excess runoff.

“Addressing climate change, and its impacts on water infrastructure and communities, is a significant priority for the agency,” the EPA said in a statement. “Recognizing that certain portions of the country will receive both more rainfall and more intense storms, EPA has been developing tools and policies that support resilient and adaptive infrastructure investments.”

Asked for his read on the landscape, Furlow, now director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, said it’s complicated.

While preparing the 2008 report, he remembers that EPA staff were already wrestling with hundreds of cities across the country on sewers, with negotiations often ending up in the courts. Effectively, the agency was barely getting cities to fix their sewers to meet 20th century conditions and other water quality issues, let alone those projected for the future.

“I sensed they were overwhelmed and frustrated about how they might take this on,” Furlow said.

Asked why the problem was so difficult to wrangle, Furlow agreed with a chorus of other experts: follow the money.

Or more precisely, the lack of it.

Families underwater

Leah Brown and her family live in a red brick home in Northwest Baltimore. In the front yard, toys line a shaded front porch. In the back, cooped chickens regularly deliver fresh eggs.

But underground, a danger lurks.

When heavy rains come, the city’s century-old sewer system fails. Stormwater infiltrates sewage pipes, increasing the pressure, and often forcing waste back into homes.

Tony Murray, wife Leah Brown, and daughter Tierney stand outside of their Northwest Baltimore home on April 13, 2021. The family has experienced numerous sewage backups through their basement toilet in recent years, costing them thousands of dollars.

Seven times in five years, feces have erupted from a shower and toilet into Brown’s finished basement. During the worst of the floods, the high-water mark reached 3 feet up the basement’s knotty-pine walls, destroying valuables, a leather couch, family photos, and other mementos.

The cleanup revealed another, hidden hazard.

“You’re bleaching the walls, you don’t see anything, so you think everything is good,” Brown said. “But when we cut those walls out there was so much black mold.”

The family has paid thousands of dollars over the years, including to install a valve in their sewage line that was supposed to prevent the backups. When that didn’t work, they paid $8,000 this summer to replace their entire sewer line.

The expenses stymie the efforts of Brown, a special education teacher, and her husband, Tony Murray, an Amazon delivery driver, from getting ahead financially.

“The American dream is only when you’re sleeping,” Brown said. “Because the rest of the time you’re just worried about bills.”

Across the country, a review of Census data by USA TODAY found the median household income in the 728 cities and towns with combined sewer systems is $45,520, compared with $67,520 nationally. The poverty rate is 50% higher than the national average.

Jennifer Kunze, Maryland manager for nonprofit Clean Water Action, stands along the Jones Falls in Baltimore on April 13, 2021. Nearby, a pipe releases raw sewage into the waterway during heavy rains. Baltimore has struggled for decades with its leaky sewage system, and the cost of repairs has led to water affordability problems in the city.

And in the worst hit areas – 13 large cities containing a quarter of the nation’s problematic combined sewer outfalls – the median nonwhite population is 56%, compared with 39% nationally.

Experts say the problem is exacerbated by a decision made decades ago in Congress to greatly reduce the federal government’s role in funding wastewater infrastructure.

For nearly two decades after the passage of the Clean Water Act, Congress assisted communities in meeting the new environmental regulation by providing $60 billion in grants for public wastewater treatment projects, including the rehabilitation of sewage systems.

But in 1987, President Ronald Reagan pushed to reframe sewers as a local problem, arguing that the federal government had met its goal and could scale back entirely.

A Democratic-controlled Congress put forth a bill that cut funding for local sewer projects by a third, before entirely phasing it out three years later. In its place, lawmakers created a loan program to disburse several billion dollars a year to state governments, which then gave out the funds to sewer authorities with expectation of repayment.

See how precipitation has changed in your community

The transition meant that Congress went from paying as much as 70% for major sewer projects to less than 5%.

Now, residents of cities and towns with combined sewers must foot the majority of the bill for EPA-mandated improvements. Some simply can’t afford it and have requested – and received – multiple extensions from the federal government to delay improvements. Others have passed along the cost to ratepayers.

Water and sewer bills have doubled and tripled in communities whose residents can ill afford to pay, putting those basic services out of range for many.

In Baltimore, sewer rates have doubled since 2012 and are expected to nearly double again by 2029, rising to an estimated $1,819 a year for a typical homeowner, according to the nonprofit Food and Water Watch.

It’s a dynamic that spans the country, said Hendricks, the University of Maryland researcher.

“The case of Baltimore City is sort of reflective of the issue that we’re currently experiencing in about every major, smaller and mid-size city in this country,” Hendricks said. “These systems are past their prime and decaying infrastructure is essentially all around us.”

Over the past three decades, Chicago has spent more than $3.8 billion to drill 110 miles of storage tunnels, some 33 feet in diameter and up to 300 feet underground, and build massive reservoirs to alleviate its combined sewer problems. Other more localized improvements, like a new sewer mains, have helped to alleviate flooding issues in individual neighborhoods.

But some historically Black communities in the city continue to experience backups and flooding, said longtime Chicago resident Lori Burns. And across the board, water and sewer rates have also risen swiftly in Chicago to pay for the improvements. In the eight years between 2008 to 2015, sewer rates nearly tripled.

“These are primarily African American working and middle class neighborhoods. A lot of single family homes and multi-unit buildings and people have been in these homes for decades and decades,” Burns said. “This is a public health issue on top of a huge financial issue.”

A sign warns passers-by not to touch the water of Herring Run in Baltimore, Maryland. The city's decrepit sewer system regularly releases sewage into the waterway and others in Baltimore during heavy rains.

It’s difficult to find a city fixing its combined sewer system anywhere in the country where the costs aren’t being passed onto communities without the means to pay for it.

Sprinkled throughout the Appalachian landscape are dozens of tiny towns and boroughs with combined sewers, whose populations are predominantly white and low-income.

In Pineville, Kentucky, the median household income is $19,000 and more than a third of its residents live in poverty. Nearly all are white, and rates will increase 5% over the next five years to pay for $10 million in water and sewer upgrades.

In Lima, the cost of the city’s sewer upgrades comes out to $1,041 for every one of the city’s 37,000 residents. But the median household income is only $35,000 a year.

“The costs that we have to pass along to our customers are becoming crushing,” said Berger, the city’s mayor. “They’re oppressive for poor and middle income households.”

Biden bills 'historic' — and not enough

Utility officials across the country held out hope this year that major spending bills in Congress — the roughly $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and proposed $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act — would reverse the decades-long decline in federal funds to repair sewers.

The bills together provide about $14 billion in new funding over five years that could help cities and towns address combined sewer overflows, more than double current funding.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at NJ Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex to promote his "Build Back Better" agenda, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Kearny, N.J.

While the National Association of Clean Water Agencies called the funding a "historic investment," the group told USA TODAY that it still falls far short of the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to upgrade the nation's combined sewers. The funds also aren't solely for combined sewer upgrades; utilities need to invest in treatment plants and other infrastructure as well.

“As welcome as these federal funds are, they are just a drop in the bucket towards addressing the true need for water infrastructure investment across the United States,” the association told USA TODAY. “Utilities and their communities across the country have been left alone for too long to pay for needed investments without a meaningful federal funding partner.”

Some on Capitol Hill push back on the notion that the funding in the infrastructure bill was undersized.

What if you could hear climate change? Listen to music based on a century of rainfall data

In the Senate, the bill largely passed through the Environment and Public Works committee. Staffers who worked on the bill told USA TODAY the funding levels reflect estimates of what could actually be spent in a given year by EPA and state agencies.

They also said that a return to funding levels similar to those under the Construction Grants program isn’t feasible in the modern political environment, and that utilities need skin in the game to maintain their own infrastructure.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chair of the Environment and Public Works committee, told USA TODAY he believes the bill is “worth celebrating.”

“The simple fact is a lot of families are going to have safer water systems because of our bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Carper said. “We make historic investments in our nation’s wastewater infrastructure and unlock the door for future improvements.”

Asked about affordability concerns, the EPA pointed to a 2019 “Integrated Planning” policy, which allows sewer utilities to prioritize and synthesize various requirements under the Clean Water Act, ultimately saving money, the agency said.

Hammer, with the NRDC, believes more can be done. She says the EPA should perform a new national assessment on the financial needs of sewer utilities, then give it to Congress to fund.

“It’ll be Congress’s responsibility to ultimately provide enough financial support – grants as well as loans – so that all communities can afford to fix their infrastructure and protect public health,” Hammer said.

USA TODAY reporter Dinah Voyles Pulver contributed to this story.

More in this series

Visual Story: Our warming climate is having a dramatic impact on precipitation. What does the data tell us about your state?

How a summer of extreme weather reveals a stunning shift in the way rain falls in America.

What if you could hear climate change? Listen to music based on a century of rainfall data

Climate change brings a perfect storm of raw sewage and rainfall in cities that can least afford it

Deadly mudslides threaten more Americans as heavy rains loom over scorched lands

Excess fertilizer washed from Midwestern fields is slowly poisoning the Gulf of Mexico

See how precipitation has changed in your community

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: America's aging sewer infrastructure is unprepared for climate change