Houston to Upgrade Sanitary Sewer System

Last month, a federal judge in Houston entered an order with major consequences for Houston's bayous, Galveston Bay, and the people who depend on them. The ruling, which kicks off formal requirements for the City of Houston to spend $2 billion on major upgrades to its sanitary sewer system over the next 15 years, draws to a close years of litigation over thousands of Clean Water Act violations.

In 2018, local non-profit organization Bayou City Waterkeeper brought these violations to light after combing through five years of data submitted by the City of Houston to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Bayou City Waterkeeper identified thousands of illegal overflows that had occurred across the City’s massive sanitary sewer system and had polluted our local bayous and creeks, as well as neighborhood parks and school playgrounds. This led the organization to serve the City of Houston with a notice of intent to sue under the Clean Water Act, which prompted the United States and State of Texas to file an enforcement action two months later.

Throughout the lawsuit filed in 2018, Bayou City Waterkeeper has emphasized solutions for low-income and Black and brown communities affected by the City of Houston’s sewer problems. As early as 2016, the Houston Chronicle had reported that lower-income communities and communities of color are “most likely to feel the consequences of Houston’s long-running struggle with sewer overflows.” After federal and state regulators did not take these concerns seriously, Bayou City Waterkeeper updated the data and presented it to the court. Bayou City Waterkeeper’s Water Justice fellow Naomi Walker, working with environmental engineer Dr. Lauren Ross, updated the Chronicle's analysis by comparing the City’s more recent overflow data to census tract data and planned spending identified in the City's annual Capital Improvement Project planning. Ms. Walker and Dr. Ross confirmed that these environmental injustices are still present and concluded that neither the sewer settlement nor planned Capital Improvement Projects account for these disparities. (The maps prepared through this analysis are available for review on Bayou City Waterkeeper's website.)

In an effort to address these environmental injustices through the federal enforcement action, Bayou City Waterkeeper urged the creation of a supplemental environmental project to help low-income residents affected by sewer problems that had been promised by the City in 2018, along with other measures to help low-income residents pay for sewer repairs at their homes and businesses. But throughout the litigation and settlement process, the City of Houston refused requests to address environmental injustices head on - claiming the planning required under the consent decree incidentally addressed some environmental injustices - or be transparent about financial impacts to local residents. This includes Mayor Turner, who emphasized that the city took advantage of the lax regulatory environment under the last presidential administration to cut the city’s required investment in local infrastructure from $5-7 billion down to $2 billion. In approving the consent decree, the federal judge formalized the City’s obligation to invest $2 billion in local sanitary sewer infrastructure, but did not require any comprehensive plan to address environmental injustices or problems with private sewer laterals. 
Ultimately, this consent decree represents a very important first step to giving Houston residents a real solution to the more than 1000 overflows reported each year. But according to Bayou City Waterkeeper, it does not do enough to help low-income Houstonians who regularly deal with sewage backing up into their homes and pooling in the yards where their children play. Over the 15-year life of the consent decree, Bayou City Waterkeeper will continue to push the City to close this gap and will closely monitor the City’s compliance with the consent decree. This $2 billion investment, funded by local ratepayers, must leave all Houstonians with cleaner water and a healthier environment over the coming years.

Author: Kristen Schlemmer

Photo courtesy of telwink at https://www.flickr.com/photos/telwink/2932910224