Rising Seas Could Impact Wastewater Treatment for Millions, Says Study

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As we saw at the end of last summer, flooding from storms like Hurricane Harvey are capable of overwhelming a large number of wastewater treatment plants, creating a significant public health crisis. But the rising of the seas could be an equally serious concern for wastewater plants, according to a nationwide study of coastal facilities in the U.S.

While previous research has addressed the impacts of sea level rises at a local level, the new study by Michelle Hummel et al. looks at the potential for flooding to impact the coastal U.S. and also the regional San Francisco Bay Area.

“We also estimate the number of people who may lose access to wastewater services if no actions are taken to prevent flooding at wastewater treatment plants,” the study reads. “We find that the number of people impacted by sea level rise due to loss of wastewater services could be five times as high as previous predictions of the number of people who experience direct flooding of their homes or property. We also find that groundwater flooding poses a significant threat to wastewater plants in the San Francisco Bay region.”

Using GIS and sea-level rise models used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the study estimated the affects lower-lying wastewater plants could face in the event of flooding. The researchers found that a sea level rise of only 0.3 meters would leave 60 wastewater plants overwhelmed, affecting 4 million people. In a worst-case prediction, they showed that a sea level increase of 2 meters would overwhelm hundreds of facilities in the country and leave some 31 million people without wastewater treatment. 



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