Sewer (Stormwater) and other utilities that protect the environment.

Anna Bachmann

I recently watched a Jefferson County Intergovernmental Meeting from Feb 4th that Chuck Marohn spoke at. I work for an environmental group that addresses water pollution from sewage and stormwater and we are often calling for repair or new and improved infrastructure. During the meeting, a question came in about plans to build a sewer system in a new area of the county. It will be quite expensive and can only be done with outside state/federal assistance. Mr. Marohn comments have been used since in a debate against the project.

Mr. Marohn promoted "thickening" but I'm still baffled about how you address environmental problems caused by higher density and I wish he covered that issue more (that's my main question. Can you make any recommendations of articles and books on this issue?). After all, he showed all these old photos of his town, promoting its original complexity, but what you don't see in those images is the untreated sewage that is likely coming off those old buildings and polluting the local stream, groundwater, etc. 

There are external costs to not doing something. The area where we want to build a sewage system already has areas of higher density, many old and failing septic systems, and a local stream polluted with human sewage that feeds what could be a productive shellfishing bed but can't be used due to this pollution.



  • Comment author
    Liz Hoenig Kanieski

    Hi Anna -

    I am also following the sewer project you mention and also viewed Mr. Marohn's presentation. I  also have a keen interest in protecting our surface and groundwaters from contamination. I think the challenge I have is that the "problems" this project is proposed to "fix" have always been identified as "promoting economic development" and "providing affordable housing" - by increasing the urban densities in this area. And of course, in WA, you can only do that is you have a Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). I think Chuck was responding to the question posed about "how does this project help with the problem of affordable housing?"

    If improving water quality in the local stream and estuary is the primary goal, then would a very expensive WWTP that will only be serving a "core" area in the community be the strategy we would use to solve that problem? If failing septic systems along the stream corridor or stormwater runoff are the major contributors to contamination - would a WWTF help solve the contamination issues? I have not seen that issue addressed by any of the engineering reports produced. Maybe helping homeowners convert to composting toilets, or upgrading old or failing septic systems nearby the stream, or putting stormwater treatment systems or facilities in place in areas that are known to contribute to the stream would be a more targeted approach to improving stream or estuary health?

    The thickening Chuck discussed would be suggested in a community like Port Townsend, which already has a WWTF and a stormwater utility in place.

  • Comment author
    Charles Marohn

    I'm having a difficult time understanding this aspect of the question: " you address environmental problems caused by higher density..."

    In the engineering profession, there is a saying: "dilution is the solution to pollution." This mathematical fact has been used to justify lots of bad decisions in terms of wastewater and stormwater but also in terms of our development pattern. It's created this very strange understanding where we spread out our development pattern and then seek to provide it with really expensive public infrastructure. This increases environmental impact and financial fragility.

    High density isn't the environmental problem -- it's the environmental solution. From an environmental perspective, there are two optimal approaches for land use:

    1. Very low density emphasizing minimal impact -- as close to wilderness as you can get with minimum roads and no utilities.
    2. Very high density, with environmental impact concentrated into a very small area with enough tax base and wealth to treat and mitigate all the impacts. Think Manhattan.

    If you build a wastewater system or a stormwater system that does not have adequate tax base to sustain itself -- which is almost certainly the case in this instance -- then it will induce development that will not only have a high impact today, but will have a disproportionately high impact when the infrastructure goes bad.


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