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The Ordeal Is Real: Top Challenges With Sewer Overflows

May 16, 2023
Min Read
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You know what’s more unpredictable than the weather? Sewer overflows. The U.S. sewer water infrastructure, built decades ago and buried underground, is mostly invisible until the worst-case scenario happens at the worst time. Add heavy rainfall, flooding, blockages, fat, oil, and grease (FOG) buildup, and urbanization and population growth to the mix, and you get frequent sewer overflows that sometimes occur at 3 am. Several challenges may arise when the worst-case scenario happens.

Some of the top challenges with sewer overflows

Sewer overflows pose several challenges for water utilities already stretched thin with other priorities. Here are a few.

Environmental and social impacts

Sewer overflows can have high concentrations of microbial pathogens, solids, debris, and toxic pollutants. The presence of chemicals, toxics, and microbiological pathogens can cause ailments that may be difficult to cure. Algae blooms also are associated with sewage pollution and can lead to severe public health issues such as fish kill, harming pets, increasing water treatment costs, and affecting recreational access (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology). Frequent sewer overflows can also adversely impact real estate prices, hamper recreational activities, and reduce tourism business.

>>YOU MIGHT LIKE: Which States Require Public Notifications for Sewage Pollution Discharges?

Increased costs

Several factors can cause sanitary sewer overflows — blockages, line breaks, power failures, sewer line defects, as well as improper sewer main design. As most remedies involve proactive measures in O&M, modeling studies, redundancy plans, capital planning, asset management, as well as infrastructure changes (such as sewer separation), fixing these issues is quite expensive.

Decreased public confidence

Sewer overflows can significantly impact community activities, which reduces public confidence in utilities and impacts the overall reputation of the community. The city of Atlanta, Georgia, has multiple sewer overflow incidents in the past, resulting in significant fines by the EPA. This incident attracted a lot of negative media attention and raised concerns about the city's ability to manage its sewage infrastructure, potentially impacting the city's reputation. Another unfortunate reality is the impact of sewage pollution on disadvantaged communities. Roughly 42% (2,269) of communities reporting in the 90th percentile for wastewater discharge are disadvantaged (ArcGIS Justice40 Water and Wastewater Disadvantaged Tracts).

Complications with regulatory compliance  

Utilities face several regulatory compliance challenges related to managing and resolving sewer overflows. The infrastructure could be aging (whose replacement is costly), they may have limited resources (funding, personnel, tools, and technology), weather conditions could be unpredictable, all of which create hurdles for utilities to manage sewer overflows and comply with the regulations set out by the EPA. The regulations themselves could change, which adds another layer of complication. These could easily leave utilities non-compliant, and result in fines, increased risk of legal action, increased operational costs, and even loss of their license in some cases.

How to overcome sewer overflow challenges using technology

Utilities might leverage several technologies to combat sewer overflows, from asset management systems to smart meters. But using several tools can limit having a centralized view of current and relevant system performance to prevent sewer overflows, proactively. So how do you leverage your data investments to make the best possible decisions at the right time?

The power of digital twins for sewer system

Digital twins for sewer systems introduce a more efficient way to manage and mitigate risk, help with the above challenges, and enable on-the-fly, and even predictive decision-making. Hydraulic models and AI built into the digital twin helps you track large-scale rain events and identify crucial fluctuations in system performance before they happen.

The best part? You won’t need vast amounts of data to implement a digital twin. Depending on your utility’s need and application, you can get started with just a couple of key datasets (that you are already most likely investing in), and it only takes weeks to implement depending on the data quality.  

You can find quick wins to advance your digital twin journey, which will help grow adoption of the technology within the utility. The Hartford Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) has already embraced the use of digital twin technology to further streamline its program initiatives and make informed decisions. In early 2021, they implemented a digital twin to help digitize some of the manual and time-consuming monitoring and operational tasks, enabling the team to keep their Clean Water Project moving forward and help prioritize areas for operations and maintenance.

Want to avoid those 3am sewer overflow calls?

With the advancement of technology, it is now more important and attainable than ever to continuously put efforts toward addressing sewer overflows. It is with these innovations that we can hope for a future with more sustainable and resilient sewer infrastructure, which will not cause sewer overflows at 3 am. We put together this eBook on Minimizing Those 3AM Overflow Calls that walks through how to proactively address risk mitigation roadblocks to prevent sewer overflows. Want to see a digital twin in action? Schedule a demo of waterCAST Sewer, our digital twin technology for sewer systems.

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Written by
Megan Simonian
Events Marketing Coordinator
Megan is a recent Northeastern University graduate and infrastructure industry enthusiast with a passion for reading and writing.

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