Unsung Infrastructure Protects Nature from Humanity’s Squeeze

Oct 1, 2018

Ocean State’s wastewater treatment faces pressures both big (climate) and small (baby wipes)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Rhode Island’s rapidly aging wastewater infrastructure is facing growing manmade pressures that go well beyond Nos. 1 and 2. More intense and severe weather, thanks to a changing climate, and wrongly labeled consumer products called “flushables” are causing problems of various sizes.

“It’s the most important infrastructure no one ever sees,” said Bill Patenaude, principal engineer for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Office of Water Resources. “It’s civilization 101 — the greatest boon to public health. This infrastructure got waste away from where you live and the water you drink.”

Nationwide there are some 15,000 facilities that treat about 32 billion gallons of wastewater daily. In Rhode Island, there are 19 major wastewater treatment facilities, with 240 pumping stations and hundreds of miles of sewer lines, from a few inches to 9 feet in diameter, that treat 120 million gallons of waste every day. This flow — from residential, commercial, industrial, and septic haulers — never stops, even as system pressures mount.

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