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A bit of good news in the wastewater

I’ll take it where I can get it.

Community spread of coronavirus is on the decline from its recent summertime high, but experts warn that Labor Day gatherings and kids’ return to classrooms could bring a rash of new infections in the coming weeks.

The latest samples of Houston’s wastewater — a highly sensitive method for tracking coronavirus — show diminishing traces of the virus across the region, said Loren Hopkins, the Houston Health Department’s chief environmental science officer. The results indicate a slight drop in person-to-person spread.

“The positivity rates are still alarmingly high, the wastewater rates are still alarmingly high, but it may be trending down,” Hopkins said Wednesday.

The decline could be short-lived.

The holiday weekend and the start of school, which spurred record infections among children, will likely keep the Houston area in “plateau mode” for the foreseeable future, said Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center.

On Tuesday, the Texas Medical Center reported that the rate of transmission across the Houston area was 0.87; the average for the previous week was 0.99. Both figures landing below 1.0 is a good sign; any number above 1.0 means the virus is spreading through the community.

Still, McKeon urged caution. Tuesday’s low daily transmission rate of 0.87 could be artificially deflated due to low testing rates, he said, which commonly occur over holiday weekends.

“We are just coming out of the Labor Day weekend and we typically do not see the impact of holidays for one to two weeks,” McKeon said.

[…]

Houston’s coronavirus hospitalizations slowed by 2.3 percent in the past week, but remained only slightly lower than August’s record peak. As of Tuesday, 3,370 people were in area hospitals for COVID-19, down from the record high of 3,500 on Aug. 24, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Ballooning school transmissions are another concern, experts said, especially in districts that do not have mask mandates. Student infections are rapidly rising across the state, with the total number of positive cases among public school students surging by 90 percent just a few weeks into the new school year.

“We need mask mandates to protect our school children from getting infected and bringing it home to Mom and Dad,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at Texas Medical Center’s School of Public Health.

The wastewater had documented to surge, and it will be the leading indicator when there is a real decline. I hope people were cautious over the Labor Day weekend, but we’ll know soon enough what if any effect that had. As for mask mandates in the schools, it seems to be working pretty well for HISD. I keep saying, none of this is a mystery, we know what we need to do, we just have to do it.

Yes, the wastewater is also pointing to a COVID surge

In case you were wondering.

There is more COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater system now than at any time in the pandemic, city officials said Wednesday, the latest warning that the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, said there is more than three times as much virus in the system as there was last July. The volume also is higher than in January, during the most recent spike. Persse said that wastewater data, a precursor to other data points, show the surge will only grow worse in the coming weeks.

“We are at a level of virus in the wastewater that we have never seen before,” Persse said. “The wastewater predicts what we’ll see in the positivity (rate) by two weeks, which predicts what we’ll see in hospitalizations by about two weeks.”

[…]

The findings came during a news conference in which the city announced it will partner with Harris County and up to 17 school districts to vaccinate students over 12 and their families every Saturday in August, an effort they are calling “Super Saturday.” The inoculations will occur in school buildings throughout the region.

Persse described the state of the surge in stark terms, pointing to dire situations in area hospitals and rising cases and hospitalizations. The Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital declared an “internal disaster” Sunday night amid a nursing shortage and an influx of patients, circumstances officials said are occurring in other area hospitals, as well.

Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon earlier this week said the region is “headed for dark times,” and the hospital system has exceeded its base intensive care capacity, opening unused wards to care for new patients.

“If you are currently unvaccinated, you need to consider that you represent a potential danger to yourself, and others, and most particularly your own family,” Persse said. “If you are not vaccinated… your chances getting through this without having to become either vaccinated or infected, is essentially zero.”

Just over 64 percent of Houstonians over 12 have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to city data, and 54.3 percent are fully vaccinated. The numbers among youth residents are more paltry, though: 28.1 percent of 12-17-year-old Houston residents are fully vaccinated, and 38.5 percent have received their first dose.

“If your child is 12 or older, stop and get them the shot,” said Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II. “Increasing vaccination rates among our communities will help ease the worries of our families and their children returning to school.”

This is another one from earlier in the month, as things were really starting to get bad. We are familiar with this project, and it has been a big success. I just wish it had better news for us, but this is where we are. Getting more of those 12-and-older kids vaccinated would make a big difference as well, so I hope that effort is successful. We’re on our own, so we’d better act accordingly.

The COVID wastewater tracking project has been a big success

This has been one of the best things to come out of this interminable and miserable COVID experience.

Lauren Stadler’s environmental engineering students always pose the same question at the beginning of a semester: “What happens to water in the toilet after you flush?”

Historically, humans have worked to quickly dispose and eradicate their own waste, which can carry diseases.

But an area’s waste creates a snapshot of who is there and what they’ve been exposed to, said Stadler, a wastewater engineer and environmental microbiologist at Rice University. She’s working with the Houston Health Department and Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR program to find SARS-CoV-2 in the city’s wastewater.

Stadler’s hunt has revealed variants in particular areas, heightening the city’s urgency to procure resources — COVID tests, informational meetings, advertising and now vaccine sites — in an effort to quash them before they proliferate.

“The beauty and challenge of wastewater is that it represents a pool of sample — we’ll never get an individual person’s SARS-CoV-2 strain, but a mixture of everyone in that population,” Stadler said. “We can find a population level of emergence of mutations that might be unique to Houston.”

[…]

Variant tracking has become an important part of the wastewater analysis process, Stadler said.

In February, the city and its research partners began seeing a quick emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the dominant variant in the area. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in nationwide.

Now that the team has gathered data and built a sustainable process, Stadler said they are using this information to forecast future pandemics. “Taking wastewater data, you can predict positivity rates and forecast infection burdens — it has this predictive power essentially. It’ll be very important to identify areas in the city experiencing increases in infection, and we can direct resources.”

The wastewater analysis team works with public works employees to collect weekly samples from nearly 200 sites across the city.

“I think they see this as a monitoring tool beyond the pandemic, and we see it as well,” Stadler said. “Hopefully, when SARS-CoV-2 is behind us, we will be able to monitor for an endemic virus, like flu. We can use wastewater monitoring to look for other viruses, bacterial pathogens and other pathogens of concern.”

See here and here for recent entries. I don’t have much to add, just my admiration for everyone involved and the knowledge they have gained. This was a simple and inexpensive innovation, and it will yield public health benefits for years to come. Kudos to all.

Finally, a bit of good COVID news

Naturally, it comes from the wastewater.

Researchers who study sewage to monitor the pandemic are detecting less virus in Houston than they have in months, a positive signal that could indicate a forthcoming drop in new COVID-19 cases, doctors said.

The amount of viral load has declined at 28 out of 38 wastewater treatment plants across the city for the first time in five months, said Dr. Paul Klotman, president and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine. He announced the good news during a Friday video update.

“It’s actually a big drop,” Klotman said. “What that means is, in 7 to 10 days, I think we’re going to see a pretty dramatic drop in the number of new cases.”

[…]

Other indicators show signs of improvement. The Houston area’s R(t) value has dipped below 1 for the first time in weeks, meaning community spread is slowing. The test positivity rate for the Texas Medical Center hospital systems dipped from 13.2% last week to 12.7% this week, Klotman said, and the weekly average of COVID-19 hospitalizations is beginning to plateau.

See here, here, and here for the background. As we know, people shed virus in feces and urine, so tracking virus levels in wastewater is a pretty good tool for determining what the true status is and where hotspots are forming. If this is the start of a trend, we’ll see infection and hospitalization levels – not to mention deaths – start to decline rapidly in the next few weeks. Keep wearing your masks and avoiding indoor gatherings, as that’s been our best defense so far, and get that vaccine when you can.

It’s still not too late to prevent a big spike in COVID infections

But it will be soon.

A rise in COVID-19 cases has health care officials and government leaders pleading with Houstonians: Act now to prevent, or at least minimize, a third wave of infections across Greater Houston.

“This feels a lot like late May, early June when we saw the early warning signs that things were beginning to increase,” Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, told the Chronicle on Tuesday, “and then things slipped out of our control.”

According to a Chronicle analysis, the seven-day rolling average for newly reported cases was 1,044.2 as of Monday in an eight-county Houston area. That’s the highest since Oct. 8. In the summer, the rolling average peaked July 17 at 2,432.7.

The rate at which the virus is spreading, called the reproduction rate, reached 1.18 across a nine-county Houston area as of Monday, according to the Texas Medical Center. A number below 1, which the Houston area did report for a few weeks, means the virus is burning out. A number above 1 means that virus spread is increasing. During the COVID-19 spike this summer, Houston’s reproduction rate was in the 1.5-1.7 range when things were getting out of control, Boom said.

Finally, the seven-day average for COVID test positivity rate was 4.2 percent for TMC hospital systems as of Monday. It had been 3.4 percent last month.

For the city, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday reported the positivity rate was 6.5 percent as of Oct. 21. Statewide, the positivity rate was 9.42 percent as of Monday.

[…]

Houston-area case increases are not as severe as in other parts of the country and state. In the U.S., 489,769 new cases have been reported since Oct. 20. There are surges in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. In El Paso, state health officials converted a convention center into a makeshift hospital to ease the crush of patients.

Still, Shreela Sharma, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health, knows how quickly COVID cases can climb. And she said the number of new cases in the Houston region is roughly 40 percent higher than when the summertime peak began. That means if a third wave does occur, it would start with a higher baseline.

The time is now to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash your hands.

“Our window is right now,” she said. “We could rapidly lose that window over the next few weeks.”

Yes, that is the one piece of good news. We know how to get a handle on this, and we’ve been doing it all along. Wear your mask – yes, wear it while voting, too – maintain social distancing, and avoid indoor gatherings. This week’s colder weather excepted, we’re in much better shape to handle the winter than the northern climes, because for most of our winter it’s still perfectly amenable outside for activities and dining and whatnot. Again, just don’t be an idiot. Do the things that you know you need to do. The alternatives are so, so much worse.

One more thing:

Researchers with Houston’s Health Department will monitor the wastewater flushed from 60 schools and 15 senior living homes in the city for COVID-19 in hopes of catching outbreaks before they arise in clinical testing.

City council on Wednesday unanimously approved $11.5 million in federal COVID-19 spending. Included in that was $221,000 to buy the sampling equipment needed to expand the city’s existing wastewater testing program into K-12 schools in areas with high positivity rates.

People shed the novel coronavirus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The samplers will be installed in manholes outside the schools, and researchers will analyze them, looking for the virus.

“It’s very granular,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the health department’s chief environmental science officer. “We don’t expect to see any positives at all, we expect to see nothing… If we see something in a school and we see it two days in a row, then we know someone in that school is shedding the virus.”

The department would then alert the school and deploy the more traditional, clinical testing, according to Hopkins.

Don’t laugh, this is an effective method of contact tracing. It’s already been used successfully by the city. Now, if there are people who can test wastewater to see if your poop has the COVID virus in it, you can damn sure keep wearing your mask.

We really can track COVID-19 through wastewater

This is terrific news.

Researchers with the city, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine were able to sniff out a potential second outbreak of COVID-19 at a homeless shelter in downtown Houston earlier this year by looking down its drains instead of in people’s noses, health officials said Thursday.

Quashing the resurgence at the Star of Hope Men’s Shelter earlier this year was one of the first successes of an effort to track the novel coronavirus through wastewater, city officials said Thursday. The initiative, one of several occurring around the country, attempts to spot outbreaks by sampling water at city treatment facilities, which could help officials tailor their testing and prevention efforts to specific neighborhoods.

To date, the results from testing wastewater largely have aligned with those from nasal swab testing, said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the city’s chief environmental science officer. That has increased the confidence that the wastewater sampling is accurate. The benefit, she said, is that wastewater tests produce quicker results.

“Ultimately, the goal is to develop an early warning system allowing the health department to identify the city’s COVID-19 hot spots sooner and put measures in place to the slow the spread of this virus,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

People shed the virus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The city was able to detect the virus in the shelter by placing a sampler on the manhole outside the facility after its initial outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The ability to home in on a single building still is limited, Hopkins said. City officials have deployed that strategy for the shelter and the Harris County Jail, and they are trying to acquire more equipment to expand the effort in the fall. The health department plans to begin testing long-term care facilities, for example.

[…]

So far, there has been a strong correlation between the viral load in the wastewater and the positivity rates by nasal tests, so the method has not unearthed large swaths of the virus that have gone undetected by tests. Still, that correlation has increased confidence that the wastewater analysis is accurate and can be used as a bellwether for future outbreaks.

From Sept. 7 to Sept. 14, for example, scientists found the virus was increasing in a statistically significant way in the communities served by the Tidwell Timber, Upper Brays and Forest Cove treatment plants, among others, while decreasing in District 23, White Oak and Homestead.

That information, coupled with the local positivity rate and other factors, helped the health department decide where to send strike teams to test people, conduct outreach and provide education about the virus. The city said the wastewater study has resulted in more testing at several congregant living centers.

See here and here for the background. This method is extra useful because it provides a more focused view of where the cases are clustering, and the testing is faster, so the response to the test results is also faster. If we are ever going to get a handle on this disease, especially before there’s a vaccine but also after one is available, it’s going to come from technology like this that gives a real-time and location-specific view of where the virus is happening. We should be rooting for this to ramp up as much and as quickly as possible. Kudos to all for making this happen. The Press has more.

When Houston is more like Austin

In a climate sense. Which is to say, drier because of climate change.

A new study predicts that Texas’ climate is going to get drastically drier because of climate change. The journal Earth’s Future recently published the study looking at historical drought records, and it projected that the second half of the 21st century could be Texas’ driest of the last thousand years.

One of the study’s authors, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, spoke with Texas Standard host David Brown on Tuesday about the future of the states’ climate and water supply.

“Conditions, on average, would be drier than we’re used to, and when we get extreme droughts, those will be drier as well,” he said.

Nielsen-Gammon said that could initiate a westward shift in the state’s climate – meaning, San Angelo’s climate becomes more like Midland’s; Houston’s climate becomes more like Austin’s, and so forth.

Reducing carbon emissions is the long-term solution to the problem that comes from a warming planet. But Nielsen-Gammon said that requires massive changes on a global scale that haven’t happened yet.

So Texans would be wise to prepare for drier conditions. And that includes planning for possible water shortages.

I’ve blogged about water issues and the challenges our state faces, as it sits at the crosswords of rapid growth, climate change, and a lot of people living in very dry places to begin with. Water conservation, wastewater recycling, desalinization, and on and on. The challenges we already face will be greatly exacerbated by climate change, and it’s going to change the state at a fundamental level.

The study highlighted a slew of looming problems for the state’s water supply. First, climate change will lead to even more megadroughts. In the latter half of the century, those droughts are likely to be worse than any of those previously on record.

“Our study shows that the drier conditions expected in the latter half of the 21st century could be drier than any of those megadroughts, depending on how you measure dryness,” lead researcher and A&M professor John Nielsen-Gammon wrote in a press release.

Second, the higher temperatures brought about by climate change will lead to more evaporation from the surface lakes that many parts of the state rely on. This problem will be particularly pronounced for Dallas, which relies entirely on surface water for its water supply, the study says.

Third, the state’s population is continuing to grow — from just under 30 million now to a projected more than 50 million in 2070 — meaning the demand for water will go up as the state gets drier.

“We’re warming up the atmosphere; that’s been happening and is projected to make the droughts more severe, but in cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, we know that populations are continuing to grow at a rapid pace,” said Jay Banner, a professor at UT-Austin who co-authored the study.

Merry Klonower, a spokesperson for the Texas Water Development Board, which offers water planning assistance to municipalities, said that each of 16 regional water planning areas throughout the state is required to take into account population projections for the next 50 years when making water supply decisions.

“And if there is a shortage, then the very next step is they have to determine how they are going to meet their water supply needs for that growing population,” she said. “So we have been doing this since the ’90s and it is a very robust process. So the state is well-prepared and is looking at future populations and water supply needs for municipalities.”

I’m sure we have been preparing and planning for years, but I’m also pretty sure we’ve been underestimating the scope of the problem all along. I mean, if we took it with an appropriate level of seriousness, we’d have a very different set of government leaders in place and would have had a much different set of priorities in this state. It’s still not too late to try to reduce the effects of climate change, but every day that passes is one day less we have for that, and one day closer to the future studies like this predict. What are we going to do about that?

The reopening metric we should be heeding

From Twitter:

Here’s that link:

Abstract

We report a time course of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sewage sludge during the Spring COVID-19 outbreak in a northeastern U.S. metropolitan area. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in all environmental samples and, when adjusted for the time lag, the virus RNA concentrations were highly correlated with the COVID-19 epidemiological curve (R2=0.99) and local hospital admissions (R2=0.99). SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations were a seven-day leading indicator ahead of compiled COVID-19 testing data and led local hospital admissions data by three days. Decisions to implement or relax public health measures and restrictions require timely information on outbreak dynamics in a community.

Introduction

The most common metric followed to track the progression of the COVID-19 epidemic within communities is derived from testing symptomatic cases and evaluating the number of positive tests over time.1 However, tracking positive tests is a lagging indicator for the epidemic progression.2, 3 Testing is largely prompted by symptoms, which may take up to five days to present4, and individuals can shed virus prior to exhibiting symptoms. There is a pressing need for additional methods for early sentinel surveillance and real-time estimations of community disease burden so that public health authorities may modulate and plan epidemic responses accordingly.

SARS-CoV-2 RNA is present in the stool of COVID-19 patients5-7 and has recently been documented in raw wastewater.8-10 Thus, monitoring raw wastewater (sewage) within a community’s collection system can potentially provide information on the prevalence and dynamics of infection for entire populations.11 When municipal raw wastewater discharges into treatment facilities, solids are settled and collected into a matrix called (primary) sewage sludge, which has been shown to contain a broad diversity of human viruses including commonly circulating coronavirus strains.12 Primary sludge provides a well-mixed and concentrated sample that may be advantageous for monitoring SARS-CoV-2. As viral shedding can occur before cases are detected, we hypothesize that the time course of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sewage sludge is a leading indicator of outbreak dynamics within a community served by the treatment plant.

So in plain English, if you know what the level of SARS-CoV-2 is in your municipal wastewater, you will have a very accurate predictor of the new COVID-19 case rate in your community. And guess what? The city of Houston is tracking this very data. I don’t know if it’s being published anywhere, but it sure could shed some light on how things are really going around here. Other cities should be doing this as well – if they aren’t doing it already, they need to start – and that information should be collected and published at the state level as well. What are we waiting for?

From the “Shit happens” department

I apologize, I couldn’t help myself.

City health officials and Rice University scientists have begun testing Houston wastewater samples for COVID-19, a process they hope will reveal the true spread of the new coronavirus as clinical testing continues to lag.

The city-led effort makes use of studies that show traces of the virus can be found in human feces. By testing samples of sewage collected at the city’s wastewater treatment plants, officials hope to uncover the scale of the outbreak in Houston and, perhaps, locate hotspots undetected by in-person tests.

“It’s an evolving field. We hope that it will help give us just more information on where the virus is and how much of it is out there,” said Loren Hopkins, a Rice University statistics professor who also serves as the health department’s chief environmental science officer.

[…]

For now, plant workers are collecting wastewater samples across a 24-hour period once a week, before sending them to Rice and health department officials who then analyze the samples for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

If successful, the project will reveal COVID-19 trends over a span of weeks and months in certain areas of Houston and citywide, Hopkins said. Though less precise than directly testing people for the coronavirus, the analysis will produce case estimates that include people who lack symptoms, because asymptomatic people still shed the virus in their stool. And because workers at the treatment plants are collecting samples across a 24-hour period, the results may provide a more accurate snapshot than the number of positive in-person test results, Hopkins said, because that data is impaired by days-long delays in receiving results.

Where the data may prove especially useful, experts said, is in locations where wastewater samples indicate the virus has spread more widely than clinical testing has revealed. Officials can then direct more testing to those areas, including through a mobile unit that launched earlier this week.

This is an attempt to address the serious gap between our need for testing and our capacity for testing. We hope it will help identify trends and emerging hot spots more quickly and effectively. It’s something that’s not been done before, and who knows if it will work the way we want. It’s surely worth a try.

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

We’re about to find out how much we’ll pay to fix Houston’s sewer system

Be prepared.

Houston would ramp up spending on its sewer system by $2 billion over 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations six years ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s staff now are briefing City Council members on the terms of the proposal, which could reach a council vote in April. The mayor said in a brief interview Friday he wanted to speak with all council members before discussing details of the deal publicly, but four people who received the briefings confirmed the deal’s length and projected cost. EPA officials declined to comment.

How much residents’ water bills would rise remains hazy. The city will soon begin a rate study, as it does every five years, that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020. Turner said rates would stay well within EPA guidelines designed to avoid burdening poor residents, though a 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis showed significant rate hikes would still comply with that framework.

Councilman Greg Travis said he was told the decree would add 4 percent to rates each year of the agreement, resulting in a more than 70 percent increase by the end of the 15-year term. It’s unclear whether that figure included assumptions about inflation and population growth, which drive automatic rate increases each spring. Some other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Still, the mayor stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year. City officials made an anti-regulation argument to the Trump administration — “You cannot run our city from D.C., and you can’t impose on us costs that the people themselves have to bear” — and it succeeded, Turner told the West Houston Association at a luncheon last week.

“We’ll finally move forward with something that’s in the best interest of the city of Houston, something that will not cost us nearly as much, and something I believe will be the best deal that any city has received anywhere in the country,” Turner told the crowd.

See here and here for the background. This is what happens when maintenance is deferred for too long, though as noted in my earlier link, both Mayors White and Parker took steps to address the problem. Just please keep in mind that this is a problem of very long standing, and it’s one that affects us all, though it most definitely affects some more than others. And if you hear anyone complain about the forthcoming hike in water rates, please feel free to ask them what level of fecal bacteria in their water is acceptable to them, and how much they would pay to mitigate that.

Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

How much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

Whatever your answer to that question is, the real answer is that it could be quite a lot.

Years of Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes belching raw waste into residents’ yards and city streets have City Hall facing a federal decree that sources say could force the city to invest $5 billion in upgrades.

As in dozens of cities across the country, the looming Environmental Protection Agency mandate likely will force Houstonians to pay sharply higher water bills to fund the improvements.

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As is the case in Wood Shadows, many of Houston’s sewer overflows reach local bayous and breed bacteria. These violations of the Clean Water Act create health risks severe enough that experts advise against swimming in local waterways, 80 percent of which fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than face a lawsuit from the EPA, which enforces the Clean Water Act, city officials have spent the last few years negotiating a so-called consent decree, a binding agreement that specifies projects aimed at reducing spills by upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how they can avoid clogging Houston’s 6,700 miles of sewers, such as not pouring grease down the drain.

EPA officials declined comment, and city leaders have resisted discussing details of the talks, but three sources with knowledge of the negotiations say the efforts expected to be required under the mandate could cost an estimated $5 billion.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has acknowledged the negotiations are “significant,” and said he has discussed the decree directly with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and plans to soon meet with Houston’s Congressional delegation on the issue.

“We are not opposed to making improvements, but we want the costs to be reasonable and spread out over the next 20 years so we can avoid any dramatic spiking of ratepayer rates,” Turner said. “Negotiations are ongoing on all fronts.”

Brent Fewell, an environmental consultant and former top official in the EPA’s water division, agreed that getting more time to comply with a decree can curtail a rate hike. Still, he said, Houstonians should expect to pay more.

“These are big-ticket items. They’re not cheap, and it definitely has an impact,” Fewell said. “There are some communities that have seen as much as 100 percent to 150 percent increases in their water rates based on these consent decrees.”

Houston’s sewers have lagged since the city’s first postwar boom, with City Hall, critics say, tending to make fixes only when forced to by regulators.

Whatever sewage treatment plants could not handle in the 1960s was dumped straight into the bayous, making Houston for decades the region’s single worst water polluter. The Texas Attorney General took the city to court over the issue in 1974, securing a judgment that restricted Houston’s development until new plants were built.

Those investments did not end the spills, however, so another round of decrees spurred a mid-1990s effort that repaired a quarter of the city’s sewer pipes and upgraded many treatment plants and pump stations.

Even that $1.2 billion program didn’t fix the problem, leading to another 2005 state mandate that Houston is scheduled to satisfy this month. That mandate was to replace 1,800 miles of pipe, clean twice that much, and cut grease clogs by passing an ordinance requiring restaurants to clean their grease traps.

For a bit of extra credit, do some reading over at the city’s Wastewater Operations page. I’m reminded of a story I heard from the professor of an urban history class I took in college. He talked about how in New York, specifically in Manhattan, the upper classes lived farther north in the pre-indoor plumbing days, and thus were first in line to both cook and wash with, and dump their waste into, the Hudson and East Rivers. Those of lesser means, who lived south – that is, downstream – from there, were thus “literally eating shit”, as he put it.

Try to keep that in mind when you read this story, because it’s our sewer system and wastewater treatment plants that allow us to avoid a similar fate. Whatever the city negotiates with the EPA, the cost of building more capacity and fixing old leaks will be passed on to all of us, and no one will like it. If you want to blame someone for it, blame all the public officials og generations past that failed to maintain the city’s water infrastructure, and the voters who let them get away with it. It will not be much fun fixing this problem, but the alternatives are all much worse.

Reusing wastewater

Get used to it.

Reclaimed wastewater soon will irrigate the trim lawns and wooded parks of some Houston suburbs. Instead of being dumped into the bayous, some of it might even undergo more extensive treatment in order to flow from kitchen taps.

Economics is starting to trump the yuck factor of reusing water flushed down toilets and drained from sinks.

“It’s becoming more real than theoretical,” said Mark Latham, who oversees Houston’s two “reuse” agreements with golf courses and the growing number of queries to contract for city wastewater.

As suburban water providers aim to meet state benchmarks for reducing reliance on groundwater, they have cringed at undertaking costly expansions to draw more water from Lake Houston via the city system. With the 2011 drought still fresh in the minds of many, treating wastewater for landscaping has advanced beyond mere discussion in many Houston suburbs. Unlike other water sources, the availability of wastewater grows with the population.

“We’ve had clients look at reuse for a long time,” said David Oliver, a public law attorney who works with several utility districts. “As the price of water has gone up, people are realizing the economics of the projects that may have been unreasonable 10 or 20 years ago now are feasible from a cost standpoint.”

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Most water in the Houston area is pumped from underground aquifers or piped in from Lake Houston to treatment plants before flowing out of home faucets and sprinkler systems. After toilets are flushed, wastewater is sent to plants where it is minimally treated before being dumped into bayous along with rainwater, much of which eventually flows into Galveston Bay. Similarly, most of the water pumped from Lake Houston is treated wastewater that flowed downstream from Dallas and other cities.

Although reclaiming wastewater – also called recycling or reusing – remains rare in Texas, it has become more popular in recent years as drought-stricken towns have tried to meet local water needs. Wichita Falls was the second in the state to construct a costly treatment plant that takes waste­water “from toilet to tap.” Defying doubters, the city’s utility manager drank a full, clear glass while giving reporters a tour. San Antonio pioneered indirect reuse of wastewater decades ago, treating it for a variety of nonconsumptive uses.

I’ve discussed this before, and I think there’s a lot of merit to this approach. Certainly, it makes no sense to use clean, drinkable water on watering lawns and other similar uses. The main argument against wastewater reuse seems to be that it provides disincentives to conserve water. Be that as it may, this is a cheaper and surely more sustainable option than building a lot more water infrastructure for our region’s (and our state’s) growing population.

On “potty water”

I have three things to say about this.

Wastewater reuse in Wichita Falls has been in the works for years and would have happened with or without the drought. It was fast-tracked as the city deals with reservoirs that are only 25 percent full today. In addition, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — not known for being a particularly strict regulating agency — is currently on the defensive for delaying the city’s project by asking for more testing.

Several other Texas cities — San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth among them — have been looking at such water reuse projects for decades, and some are hoping the plans might come to fruition in the coming years. Across Texas, treated wastewater is being used for everything from watering golf courses to making silicon chips.

Yet judging by the headlines on news reports about the Wichita Falls project, the city’s residents could be in for some sort of disgusting surprise.

“Brushing Teeth With Sewer Water Next Step as Texas Faces Drought,” read a Bloomberg News headline. National Public Radio wrote, “Drought-Stricken Texas Town Turns To Toilets For Water.” Most recently, NBC’s Today Show tackled the topic, with a reporter noting, “Some residents think it’s just plain gross.”

Bloomberg News noted that many people are concerned about water contamination, comparing the Wichita Falls project to the example of Oregon water officials flushing 38 million gallons from a reservoir after a teenager urinated into it. “We’re not drought-stricken Texas,” an official there noted.

On that note, remember all the people guzzling beer and floating in the water out on Lakes Travis and Buchanan, which supply Austin’s drinking water. No one is suggesting flushing those bodies of water or implying that residents of the capital city are brushing their teeth with sewer water.

1. Maybe I’m the weirdo, but I always assumed that much of our drinking water came from treated wastewater. I mean, wastewater has to go somewhere, and one way or another it’s going to wind up back in whatever river or lake or reservoir we use for potable water. Maybe it’s the number of steps between the two that makes the difference for some people, but I figure it’s all the same water anyway, so what’s the fuss about?

2. Of course, if the thought of drinking treated wastewater wigs you out, maybe we can talk about using it for agricultural or industrial purposes, or even just for watering your lawn. It really doesn’t make sense to dump almost a hundred billion gallons of drinkable water on grass and plants.

3. Besides, all of our water has been inside a dinosaur at some point, so why be squeamish about it now?

Adventures in water marketing

The headline on this story is about Texans’ increasing interest in recycling water. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? But there’s another way of describing it that maybe isn’t so appealing.

Experts say recycled wastewater will play a key role in satisfying the thirst of a rapidly growing population. While reuse now provides 2 percent of Texas’ water, state officials say that over the next half-century the drought-proof source will account for at least 10 percent of new supplies.

To reach the goal, state lawmakers may require at least 20 percent of any new funding for water-related infrastructure to go toward conservation or reuse. The requirement is part of House Bill 4, which would allow a one-time transfer of $2 billion into a new revolving, low-interest loan program for water projects.

“This is a robust and reliable source,” said Jorge Arroyo, an engineer and director of innovative water technologies at the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s water-planning agency. “Its future is very promising.”

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Before drought began gripping the state in 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality typically approved fewer than 20 reuse requests from cities and water districts each year. The number jumped to 32 two years ago and 38 last year, with 25 applications already pending this year, the agency said.

Arroyo attributed the increasing interest in reclaimed water in part to the lingering drought, which covers 74 percent of the state. He also credited improving technology, which now is capable of turning sewage into water so clean it’s almost distilled.

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Water managers see wetlands as a reliable, less-expensive solution to more dams, aqueducts and pipelines that deliver water over long distances. Wetlands allow them to reuse water that they already paid at least once to store and purify.

For all the interest in toilet-to-tap technology, more new potable reuse projects will take the indirect route through wetlands, rather than go straight to the faucet, Arroyo said. Meanwhile, most water reuse will continue to be for irrigation, landscaping and purposes other than human consumption.

I’m going to step out on a limb here and venture that if you were in charge of an advertising campaign for water recycling, you might prefer to steer clear of the phrase “toilet to tap technology”. I mean, you probably don’t want people thinking too much about where that water originated. I know, I know, this is ultimately the way it goes for all of our water, with or without any fancy new technology. I suspect most people would rather imagine that their water all comes from a nice reservoir or a cool mountain stream or something like that. It may not matter that much if most of the recycled water goes to things like irrigation or decoration or other non-drinking purposes. I’m just saying.

Recycling water

The Trib continues its look at the present and future of water use in Texas with a story about reclaiming wastewater.

“Reclaimed water,” the term for cleaned-up wastewater that gets reused, currently provides a little less than 3 percent of Texas’ water supply, often for purposes like irrigating golf courses. The figure is projected to rise to 10 percent by 2060, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

Reclaimed water “is a way to stretch our existing supplies and potentially avoid expensive infrastructure projects,” said Myron Hess, the manager of the Texas water program for the National Wildlife Federation. Putting potable water on grass is especially wasteful, environmentalists say.

When cities do not “reclaim” their wastewater, which is also called effluent, it generally gets dumped into creeks and rivers. Austin, for example, puts its effluent into the Colorado River, and wastewater from Dallas goes into the Trinity River (which ultimately helps supply water to Houston).

To some degree, Texas has been a leader on reclaimed water. The San Antonio Water System boasts of having the “nation’s largest recycled water system.” Some of that recycled water flows down the San Antonio River, at the heart of the city’s popular River Walk, and some goes to golf courses, parks or industry.

El Paso, the driest major city in Texas, built a pioneering project in the mid-1980s that injects treated wastewater into the Hueco Bolson aquifer, where it swirls around and mingles with existing supplies before eventually being pumped back up for chlorination and drinking. (The local water utility estimates that it takes more than two years before water comes back up after being sent into the aquifer.)

No point being squeamish about it. One way or another, it all eventually finds its way back to your water supply. For things like irrigation or some industrial uses, there’s no need for the water to come from the same source that feeds your kitchen tap. It makes all kinds of sense for water utilities to think in these terms. You can do something like this yourself on a small scale with a rain barrel or other clever ideas. It’s a lot easier than you think to use less and make the most of the water you have.

Two water stories

The future of Texas’ water supply sure is a hot topic in the papers these days. I hope that continues after we start getting normal rainfall again.

Story One is about desalinization:

For El Paso and a growing number of Texas cities, the question isn’t whether they have enough water, but what price people are willing to pay to make it drinkable.

Aquifers beneath the Chihuahua desert are filled with brackish groundwater, belying the seared landscape above. Salty water rushes down rivers. And the Gulf of Mexico offers a virtually unlimited supply.

For centuries, Texans had cheaper ways to quench their thirst. But population growth – up 20 percent over the past decade, to 25 million people, and predicted to almost double by 2060 – is driving up demand, just as the supply is shrinking. The latest draft of the state water plan predicts existing supplies will fall by 10 percent in the next 50 years.

But Texas has more than 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, enough to meet current demands for more than 176 years.

For many cities, the cost of desalination – up to four times that of other water treatments, sometimes even more for seawater desalination – is no longer a deal-breaker.

The state’s first permanent seawater desalination plant will open on South Padre Island in 2014. Until then, all of the state’s 44 desalination plants – most of them small, scattered across West Texas and the Rio Grande valley – treat brackish groundwater.

The El Paso plant is the state’s largest, capable of producing 27.5 million gallons of water a day for city customers and those on the Fort Bliss Army post.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” said John Balliew, vice president of operations for El Paso Water Utilities, which worked with the U.S. Army to build the $91 million plant.

See here and here for some background. The good news is that there’s plenty of brackish water in Texas, more than enough to meet the needs of the growing population, at least in the drier western parts of the state. The bad news is that it costs more than fresh water to use, and I suppose no one really knows what if any negative effects there may be from sucking that water out from underground. The other good news is that the need to use a more expensive water supply ought to encourage conservation – using less is always cheaper than finding new supplies. Be all that as it may, I think we’re going to see a wave of desalinization plant construction, which means it’s just a matter of time till we get the first major scandal involving some kind of financial shenanigans having to do with such construction. That’s when you know an industry has really arrived in this state.

Story Two is about reclaiming wastewater.

Wastewater – the water that runs down the drain as you brush your teeth, wash dishes and clothes, shower and flush your toilet – will be increasingly important to Texas’ future. The 2012 state water plan predicts use of so-called “reclaimed water” will grow by about 50 percent by 2060, to 614,000 acre-feet per year, or more than 20 million gallons.

“It takes a little bit of getting used to,” said Midland Mayor Wes Perry, whose city already uses treated wastewater to irrigate the grounds of Midland College and will add it to its drinking supply in 2012.

“When you start talking about drinking water, that is uncomfortable,” Perry said. “But if you look at other places, they’re doing it. It’s a psychological thing more than anything else.”

California, Florida and a few other states already add treated wastewater directly to the drinking supply, but this will be a first for Texas.

I suppose I had always assumed that treated wastewater was part of the equation, so the “ick factor” mentioned in the story doesn’t affect me. We’ve actually been doing a little bit of this on our own, by putting a basin in the kitchen sink to catch water that we use when washing our hands, rinsing dishes, or dumping unused drinking or cooking water. We then use what we collect in the basin to water plants outside, since it’s perfectly fine for them. Baby steps, but I figure every little bit less that we use the hose to water outside is a win.

What do you think about this stuff? Does any of it bother you?