Baird: Houston’s Sewer Consent Decree an Investment in Resiliency, AI Innovation

By Greg Baird

Our nation faces many trials of resiliency — “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” The trials occur at every level — as individuals, communities and cities.

The infrastructure that supports our standard of living and represents the backbone of public health includes our water and sewer systems. The 2021 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave us a “C-“ in water, a “D+” in wastewater and a “D”  grade in stormwater. Urban sprawl, annexations, underfunding, water quality, water demand, aging infrastructure, new regulatory requirements, demographic shifts and climate change over time all impact our water distribution and wastewater collections systems.  

Recently, the City of Houston legally entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requiring $6 billion in infrastructure efforts — $2 billion more than its existing sewer budget with milestones and tasks stretched out over 15 years to help the city avoid severe and costly penalties and catastrophic public health events. While ratepayers grow uneasy with utility cost increases and officials work to address affordability concerns, many times we overlook the public service duty and responsibility of the elected officials and steadfastness of the ranks of city staff to build resiliency into the core public services.

Consent Decree Work Begins to Upgrade Houston’s Wastewater System

The $62.5 billion wastewater industry in the United States has more than 875,000 miles of sewer lines, more than 15,400,000 manholes and over 16,000 wastewater treatment plants. Houston has stewardship over 6,200 miles of sewer mains, 129,600 manholes and 381 lift stations, three wet weather facilities and 39 wastewater treatment plants.

The consent decree, among other mandates, calls for the rehabilitation, repair and replacement of about 155 miles (800,000+ lf) of sewer pipe a year and the installation of 3,000 smart manholes to better monitor potential overflows that threaten human health, contaminate the environment and cause property damage. These storm and sewer overflows are caused by grease blockage, rags and wipes that clog the system. Collection system failures from age, corrosion and wet weather events are the source of the highest numbers of gallons of contaminated overflows. It takes a tremendous effort to clean every foot of sewer pipe every 10 years, assess the condition, and clean more frequently the pipe segments at higher risk for overflows.

Building resiliency into our communities starts with vision and leadership over several years.

Building resiliency into our communities starts with vision and leadership over several years. Building resilient wastewater and storm infrastructure and innovative processes and cost-effective modern systems into the EPA’s legal requirements by the City of Houston should not be overlooked or undervalued.

These carefully planned and negotiated efforts are being led by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Yvonne Forrest, Director of Houston Water, Jack Canfield, Executive Assistant Director, Ogadinma Onyebuchi, Supervising Engineer, Raghavender Nednur, Managing Engineer, Nasir Fazljoo, Wastewater Engineer, Fazle Rabbi, Managing Wastewater Engineer, Dr. Pratistha Pradhan, Supervising Wastewater Engineer, Amirhossein Shokouhi, Wastewater Engineer and many others. The team is working to incorporate cost effective and time saving technologies like utilizing human assisted SewerAI/computer vision for more effectively and accurately identifying sewer pipe defects in CCTV inspection videos, utilizing cloud platforms for data storage and management, conducting CCTV audits, and connecting data points by deploying sensors and smart devices which provide better and timely decision making for the appropriate use of trenchless technologies.

Engage the Defect Radar! Space Age AI Technology in Our Underground Sewer Networks

The additional benefits of digital solutions are that they are scalable and affordable for any sized municipality or sewer collection system. Also, cloud platforms do not require purchasing additional servers and computer space for CCTV videos, which should always be stored as historical sewer pipe condition assessment data. The same operational cost benefits can also be gained by city contractors where CCTV footage can be uploaded from the service truck into the cloud, audited and labeled with NASSCO PACP pipe defects with a certified QA/AC process providing a higher degree of accuracy and in less time. AI is also expanding from sewer mains to laterals (cross bores audits) and manholes.

These innovative efforts combined with public service dedication and vision places our cities in a leadership position to address consent decrees, sewer rehab work and use trenchless technology applications while aligning efforts and working together with the various levels of government. The state (Water Environment Association of Texas), national (Water Environment Federation), and federal (Environmental Protection Agency are watching more than 772 combined sewer/consent decree cities). Houston’s $2 billion consent decree over 15 years is part of an investment for Houstonians to live in resilient and sustainable communities for decades to come.

Greg Baird is president of the Water Finance Research Foundation and a frequent contributor to WF&M. As a management consultant, he specializes in long-term utility planning, infrastructure asset management and capital funding strategies for municipal utilities in the United States. He has served as a municipal finance officer in California and as the CFO of Colorado’s third-largest utility.

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