2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card | Part 2 In A Series
The Worst Grades of Texas: Levees and Wastewater
by Mark K. Boyd PhD, PE, M. ASCE
Chair, 2021 Infrastructure Report Card Committee
As I described in my February Texas Civil Engineer (TCE) article, the 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card is out and it needs to stay top of mind for our State Legislature, the public at large, and the ASCE community. This is the second in a series of articles highlighting the most acute issues within this most recent Texas Infrastructure Report Card (IRC).
The Texas GPA of C does not tell the whole story. Texas GPA rose even though 12 categories were evaluated, 4 more than in 2017, which includes 2 categories never before assessed (see page 85 of the 2021 Texas Infrastructure Report Card). The report card is all about setting the right priorities and targets for smart infrastructure investment. Most of the 4 additions dragged the GPA down, as well as some other categories that continued to reside at the bottom of the grade scale. Working our way up in this series of articles from worst to best grades, I’ll start with the worst grades in Texas, which included a D in the new category of levees and also a D for wastewater, the latter a previously graded category maintaining the same grade from 2017.
Levees | D
As ASCE members are well aware, many areas of Texas are protected by a system of levees, man-made structures that provide hurricane, storm and flood protection. There is no state levee program, yet more than 1 million people and $127 billion dollars’ worth of property are protected by levees. The Texas 2018 Levee Inventory Report lists 51 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) levee systems with 291 miles protecting a population of 291,200 and 276 known non-USACE levee systems with 1,562 miles protecting a population of 707,700. Nearly 90% of the levees in Texas are constructed, inspected, and maintained by local governing agencies that oftentimes lack adequate resources for routine assessments. The average age of the state’s levees is about 47 years old as compared to the national average of 56 years. Five levee systems (about 100 miles of levees) out of 41 assessed to date are classified as high to very high risk. Although levee failures in Texas are rare, increasingly frequent and intense storms have recently tested the capacity of the state’s levees multiple times. Largely, condition-related data is unavailable due to lack of regulatory oversight and routine inspections. Most of the levees and the associated consequences from failure or poor performance is not well documented. More than 75% of Texas levee systems are without screened risk classification compared to 81% nationally. Without a clearer picture of the state’s levee infrastructure and concerted funding to assist private owners, the vast majority of the state’s levees will remain in the presumed deficient status.
Is it any wonder the committee assigned a letter grade of D?
Texas Levee infrastructure is poor and at risk due to a combination of known conditions, unknown conditions, lack of oversight and lack of planning. What to do? The committee presented the following recommendations to raise the grade:
- Urge Congress to fully fund the National Levee Safety Program and urge the Texas State Legislature to establish a state Levee Safety Program within TCEQ, patterned after the Dam Safety Program, to identify and track the status of Texas’ levee systems.
- Once established, the new Levee Safety Program should require mandatory safety inspections and public evacuation plans for areas protected by levees.
- Partner with levee system owners to provide more funding to the USACE to perform LSAC screening on more of the levee systems to identify problems earlier.
- TCEQ should conduct workshops as part of its Levee Safety Program for owners to provide training on the best practices for levee operations and inspections.
- Educate the public living in areas protected by levees about their residual risk, by conducting a public outreach campaign based on the “So You Live Behind a Levee” document and patterned after the “Know Your Watershed” efforts to help the public know what levee protects their home and who operates and maintains it
- Before the next calamity occurs, TCEQ should place a high priority on requiring Emergency Action Plans for all High or Very High-Risk levees in Texas
As Dilbert’s comic strip boss often asks him: “Will there be any unforeseen problems?”.
The 2021 Texas IRC Committee answers, “Yes! There will be epic unforeseen levee problems!”
Wastewater | D
Texas has an escalating population that depends on the state’s wastewater infrastructure to protect public health and the environment. Wastewater infrastructure includes a system of pipes to collect wastewater from homes and businesses and a network of treatment plants to clean the water before it is discharged to our rivers and bayous. The condition of these systems continues to decline, primarily because of their age. Federal and State funding is deficient, with a shortfall of more than $200 million. Local resources for system expansions and planning are limited, and when tested by extreme events, many wastewater systems are not resilient. From 2016 to 2019, the number of sanitary sewer overflows (SSO) more than doubled from 2,500 to almost 6,000. Furthermore, some major municipalities have entered into consent decrees with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address SSO. As wastewater system performance decreases, Texas’ lakes, rivers, and beaches continue to suffer poor health due to ongoing threats from SSO. However, some initiatives are helping to curb the wastewater sector’s downturn by increasing SSO reporting and incentivizing fiscal and technical training for Asset Management Program for Small Systems (AMPSS).
A letter grade of D was assigned because our coastlines, rivers, and lakes are at high risk.
The committee offers the following solutions, which were also brought to the attention of state legislators during our recent legislative “phone in”. Resources and regulatory support need to be delivered for better community planning for centralized wastewater systems. With new legislation and renewed funding through state agencies such as the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), increased and sustained investment needs to be directed towards wastewater infrastructure upgrades, especially on those that promote re-use of treated wastewater. Through the advent of new treatment methods such as reverse osmosis, ozone, and ultraviolent light, treated water can be processed quicker than traditional chlorine contact methods. With less processing and holding time, plants can treat more wastewater and often discharge a cleaner, purer product back into the environment while using less energy and ultimately being more cost-effective. With heavy rain events in some regions of Texas, and water shortages in others, wastewater and stormwater are increasingly reused. New methods and technologies of reusing water have allowed communities to better manage precious water supplies by treating wastewater products to levels required for commercial, irrigation, and industrial uses.
Furthermore, for the grade to be raised by the next report card period, the following must occur:
- Increase state and local funding by raising rates to reflect the true cost of service, which would supplement federal funds for wastewater infrastructure improvements that currently fall short of requested funds.
- Deliver resources and regulatory support for better community planning for centralized wastewater systems to reduce the need of septic tanks, reduce package plants, and drastically reduce incidents of sanitary sewer overflows (SSO).
- Modernize guidance on resilience planning, including natural systems combined with engineered systems, as more extreme weather events are anticipated.
- Increase wastewater treatment capacity in anticipation of significant population growth.
- Support technologies for reuse of biosolids, high efficiency equipment and processes.
- Encourage owners, operators, and designers to improve innovation in the wastewater industry through research and pilot studies.
Next time, in Part 3 of this series, I’ll get into the Energy grade and how Texas ASCE’s newly formed committee “Beyond Storms: Infrastructure Network Resilience” is working to present a groundbreaking report later this year about what happened during the 2021 winter storms and what must happen “beyond storms”. Until then, join me in continuing to disseminate Report Card information and push infrastructure design and funding toward improved quality of life for all!