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Report: The “Sewage Crisis” for Minnesota and Other Great Lakes States

August 10, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS - A chronic problem of sewage overflows in the Great Lakes region is revealed in a new report from the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. The very same communities that rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water and recreation also dump billions of gallons of untreated sewage every year into these freshwater lakes, says Jeff Skelding, the coalition's campaign director.

"It's a nagging problem that's been going on for decades and continues to be one of the worst threats to the water quality of the Great Lakes."

The report calls on Congress to up the ante this year by boosting funding to the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund. Skelding says that Congress has historically supported clean water initiatives for the Great Lakes region, but that funding levels have decreased in recent years, while the sewage problems continue to grow. Some municipal leaders from the region say the report unfairly depicts their sewage systems as sub par.

Skelding says part of the challenge is that most communities focus solely on the traditional approach of "gray infrastructure," which involves separating combined sewer pipes, upgrading treatment facilities and building sewage retention basins. He says while that approach is important, it's not enough to manage the growing storm water runoff problem, and that there are several successful green approaches that could also be implemented.

"What we would like to see, when this legislation is enacted, is that a significant percentage of where the money goes, goes to that softer approach. Because it's preventative, it's less expensive, so it's a win-win situation here."

Some of the green approaches include the restoration of wetlands, planting vegetative buffer strips, and the creation of rain gardens, says Skelding. The report notes a rain garden initiative in Burnsville, Minn., that reduced storm water runoff from a residential area by 90 percent.

Skelding says the impact that the Great Lakes have on everyday life for people who live in the region cannot be underestimated.

"They recreate in it, they drink it, they use it for commerce. The lakes are just this precious, precious resource that is integrated fully into our communities and our way of life. And so, if you don't invest in ensuring that they get cleaner, you're striking at the core of a lifestyle here. Cleaning up the Great Lakes is not just about doing it for the environment."

Skelding also says that federal funding for the Great Lakes is not an expenditure, but an investment, and that the report illustrates how investing in infrastructure creates jobs. For example, in Minnesota, economists found that a $1 billion investment in sewer improvements would create up to $2.4 billion dollars in demand for goods and services across the state's economy.

The full report, "Turning the Tide: Investing in Wastewater Infrastructure to Create Jobs and Solve the Sewage Crisis in the Great Lakes," is at: www.healthylakes.org

Sharon Rolenc, Public News Service - MN