Addressing critical infrastructure: sewage backups

If you’ve spent any time at all watching or reading the news, you’ve probably heard politicians decrying our aging infrastructure…or even the phrase ‘shovel-ready projects’ thrown around quite a bit. On the federal level, the focus has been on highways and bridges and other transportation assets that fall with the federal domain. But on a local level, there’s a crisis brewing that is going to be astronomically expensive to fix: sewer systems.


Sewage problems: a national epidemic but local problem

If you’ve never suffered a sewage backup in your home, consider yourself lucky. Our nation has roughly 750,000 of sewer lines. A big chunk of that system is at risk of total failure and showing its age. Unfortunately, many cities are simply overwhelmed from a budgetary standpoint and can not afford to fix the stinky mess lurking just below the surface. That is, until it rears its ugly head and causes a significant amount of damage. And just how often do sewage systems malfunction and cause problems? It’s impossible to know the actual numbers, but here are some figures we feel reasonably confident about:



  • 75,000 sewer overflows last year
  • 500,000 sewage backup claims were filed last year


A sewage overflow is when something goes wrong in the main sewer line of the city and it backs up through a manhole or other opening, essentially flooding a public area (street, park, etc.) with raw sewage. A sewage backup is when an actual home gets sewer water in it that requires sewage cleanup services. But not even present in those numbers is the untold sewage losses that aren’t covered under insurance and are never claimed by the homeowner.


What will it cost local governments to address the problem?


While the actual numbers are staggering, both in terms of the number of losses and the cost to repair the damages, the cost to fix the underlying problems will make your jaw drop: Experts estimate it will cost over $1 trillion (yes, with a T) over the course of the next 20 years to upgrade local municipalities’ aging sewer system to meet modern demands. That’s simply money that isn’t there right now, and it’s going to take a very a long time to educate residents about the need to divert funds to this crisis.


What can I do to protect my home?


While asking politicians and other tax paying citizens to change their focus and attention to this crisis might seem impossible, there is something you can do to reduce the chances of a catastrophic sewage backup from happening to you:

Install what is called a sewer backflow valve outside of your home. Below is a diagram showing where it sits in relation to your home, but it’s pretty simple: if sewage is coming back up your pipe and threatening to enter your home, the valve leaps into action and stops it from coming inside.


Climate change, flooding and their impact on communities

There’s a very hot debate over whether climate change is actually occurring and if so, what impact it’s actually having on our planet and society as a whole. For the purposes of this article, we’re simply going to relay information. You may be in agreement with the beliefs presented by this information and you may be in vehement disagreement. As we’ve said quite often, our goal is to encourage a dialogue about important events that impact our society as it pertains to infrastructure and building. Perhaps the discussion of climate change and flooding can be one of those topics we can discuss with a level head…?


Are flooding events becoming more common?


Here’s an interesting illustration highlighting flood events across the country. It may be difficult to decipher at first, but it’s essentially highlighting the number of instances where water levels exceeded the 95th percentile of watershed events over the course of 1960-1990.


So to answer the question “are floods becoming more common?” the answer appears to be yes. And flooding isn’t the only problem. All types of natural disasters are on the rise.


What impact is flooding having on communities?

For starters, there is the huge emotional toll. It can’t be quantified but it’s very real and it’s not difficult to understand why. Flooding can wipe out entire communities and cause  massive death tolls. But beyond the emotional toll is there are many other negative impacts flooding damage can have on society.



In the US alone, the average cost of flooding damage each year over the course of the past 30 years has been almost $8 billion. That’s purely the cost of repairing the damages, be it to private property or infrastructure. What that number doesn’t include is the loss of business and productive incurred due to the disruptions caused by flooding. Factor in that monetary loss and you’re looking at a much, much higher number.



Loss of livelihoods, decrease in purchasing power as well as production power, not to mention the psychosocial effects of flooding. These are difficult to quantify but nonetheless very real. In some developing nations, flooding creates massive migrations and exodus of citizens, essentially delaying their ability for financial progress by a factor of years if not decades. Depending on the response to the flood disaster by the governing authorities, political unrest or even revolt may occur. These societal impacts are very real and must be considered when we begin to talk about what we as a society can do to prevent these disasters from occurring in the first place.


Solving infrastructure woes locally

When it comes to getting news about major infrastructure and construction in the US, our readers know we are their first stop. So without further ado, let’s delve into some recent news!

In this blogpost, we’re going to focus on a recent article by US News & World Report. If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the course of the last 10 years or so, you’re probably aware that our federal government can barely tie their own shoes and walk at the same time. The notion that anyone associated with Washington DC is capable of tackling some of the huge issues facing Americans seems laughably naive.

And so is the case when it comes to infrastructure spending. From both sides of the aisle you hear much talk but see virtually no action. Welcome to the United States of America! Can you tell we’re bitter and disillusioned? Hah!

Anyways, let’s delver into the article some…it’s a great read that brings forth some pretty serious conversations that must be had.


Maintenance is cheaper than replacement


pothole on rural streetEven if you are in no way associated with any aspect of government spending or infrastructure, you know this to be the case. Heck, if you own a home you know this. It’s a lot cheaper to make minor home repairs than it is to completely ignore failing systems and then have to go back and replace them. Whether it’s a water heater, a toilet, or a roof, that holds true.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the same holds true for major roadways and bridges. Unfortunately, municipal budgets are shrinking and there is only so much money to go around. And in most municipalities, infrastructure spending goes to the back of the line behind education, police and fire departments, etc. Sadly, as is the case with so much of our local and federal governments, the rooster will eventually come home to roost.

And as the article states, there are already many examples of the rooster roosting:

“The longer it takes to address these needs, the more expensive it will be. It can be three to four times as expensive to fix a road with advanced decay than one that is only modestly in need of repair. The same is true of bridges. The state of Rhode Island, for example, had to spend $167 million to completely replace a bridge because it had failed to maintain the original one.”


What is the answer?

There is no clear answer. Some have one opinion and others differ greatly on that opinion (isn’t that the beauty and downfall of a democratic society?). What we can say for certain is that answers will only come about with more dialogue and more information. The greater sense of urgency we can bring to the matter the more we can talk through opportunities to address these problems and find solutions. But simply ignoring the problems isn’t going to make them go away. It’s going to make them worse. Hopefully this blog post can help be a very small part of the conversation!