The Messiest Local Government Issue

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The problem of building, maintaining and expanding sewer systems never seems to go away. 

Of all the messy problems local government leaders need to address, one is the literal messiest: sewage.

Managing human waste is a problem that has existed since people started living in communities. It emerged as a pressing American county and municipal government issue in the mid-20th century, and has never gone away, especially as the country’s suburbs continue to expand in size and population.

As recently as September 2021, Chelsea Wald, a science and environmental journalist based in the Netherlands, declared in Undark that the world had just endured the “summer of sewage.” In July, she noted, the largest municipal wastewater treatment facility in Los Angeles spilled 17 million gallons of raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay. The spill, caused by a surge of debris clogging the system, resulted in beach closures at summer’s peak. Weeks later, the issue still had not been fully resolved.

Infrastructure investments approved by Congress will help address the country’s sewer woes. But Wald and others argue that pouring money into upgrading large existing sewer systems is not the right approach.

“There's only one surefire way to end big sewage spills,” Wald wrote, “and that’s to end big sewage.” In Portland, Oregon, she noted, city officials gave a luxury residential and commercial complex a $1.4 million payment for developing an independent treatment system to avoid putting more stress on the city’s aging sewers. 

“Much of our water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life,” wrote Andrew D. Morris, the water policy officer for the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, in late 2020. “For example, in metropolitan Atlanta much of our water infrastructure was installed in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s during a period of significant population growth and suburbanization.”

Indeed, sewers have long been a contentious issue in suburbia, where most of the nation’s population growth occurred in the latter half of the 20th century.

“Once again, sewers,” The New York Times wearily reported in 1976. “They are a suburb's mark of maturity, a sure sign that times of relatively free space and every‐home‐for-itself are coming to an end.” The report detailed issues with the development of the Southwest Sewer District in Suffolk County on Long Island. In seven years, the cost of the project had increased from $291 million to nearly $1.5 billion.

Sewer systems have long been viewed as blunt instruments to attempt to control growth in the suburbs. In 1971, Jeff Stansbury, an advocate of the zero population growth movement wrote, “In the dimensions of suburban sewers, the capacity of treatment plants at the ends of the lines, the high-density rezonings which trunk sewers inspire, and the political-economic-legal forces which bear on sewerage, we can find more to reckon our demographic fate than in all the contraceptives, abortion law repeals, and family planning clinics we will ever bring forth.”

In Fairfax County, Virginia, which was among the fastest-growing—and eventually, wealthiest—suburbs in the nation in the post-World War II era, slow-growth advocates targeted sewer systems in their efforts to manage the county’s development. Jean Packard, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizens Associations in the 1960s and later chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, recalled the effort in a 2005 interview: “The federation and the League of Women Voters and the county council and PTAs took on the whole development contingent and the Board of Supervisors to defeat a sewer bond issue … And we went down to the water control board and said, the county is … polluting the water of the county, which included our drinking water. And the state water control board agreed with us, and they put a moratorium on all building in Fairfax County until the sewage treatment plants were upgraded.”

At the time, Fairfax County was experimenting with the kind of approach to sewer systems that Wald and others advocate. “All the sewer lines had their own individual treatment plants, based on the particular district,” said Millard Robbins, former executive director of the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority, in an interview with Russ Banham for his 2020 book, The Fight for Fairfax. “If a developer wanted to develop a property, he’d get permission to establish his own treatment system and would form what’s called a sanitary district.” 

The problem, Robbins said, was “the philosophy was to do things as cheaply as you could and the state would allow. Consequently, the sewer systems—when they worked—provided minimum treatment, at best.”

The issue very nearly led to a radical change in the county’s government. In 1964, state senator Omer Hirst introduced a proposal to make all of Fairfax County a city, arguing that it needed city powers to be able to effectively provide services to residents, such as sewer systems. But the measure failed in the Virginia Senate. Instead, Fairfax adopted the urban county executive form of government, adding a chairman to its Board of Supervisors.

That arrangement, in altered form, is still in place—as are many of the nation’s sewer systems of that era. And that presents a big challenge for local officials. 

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