State Water Resources Research Institute Program (WRRI)
USGS Grant Number: G16AP00197
Start Date: 2016-09-01 End Date: 2019-08-31
Total Federal Funds: $240,000 Total Non-Federal Funds: $240,000
Principal Investigators: Dr. Sandra McLellan
Abstract: Urbanization of coastal watersheds impacts our water resources, particularly around the Great Lakes, which serve as a drinking water source for 40M people. Strict regulations prohibit the release of untreated sewage into surface waters, but our laboratory and others have documented that unrecognized (and unregulated) sewage release is widespread and chronic in the urban environment and can be attributed to failing infrastructure and illicit connections. Few approaches and tools exist that can assess these problems and allow water resource managers to identify major infrastructure failures. The overall goal of this project is to improve assessment of failing infrastructure and to measure the impact it has on water quality. The EPA estimates that 271 billion dollars is needed over the next 10 years to maintain wastewater infrastructure to address public health problems. In recent years, Congress has appropriated only about 14% of what is needed. There is evidence that sewer infrastructure is already failing. Our laboratory has found that nearly 30% of local stormwater outfalls have evidence of sewage contamination from illicit connections or infiltration from leaking sanitary sewer lines. The physical location of breaches in the system are difficult to locate, as terminal stormwater outfalls connect to a web of pipes that cover tens of miles in a typical sewershed. We are tackling this problem from the science, technology, and policy angles, which is what will be required to produce outcomes that actually improve water quality. On the science side, we have been working with USGS on the long-term goal of identifying optical signals that correlate to human-specific bacterial indicators, thereby creating a field based, real-time assessment tool. Our laboratory specializes in identifying alternative indicators. Human and animal microbiomes have many organisms that are host specific, and tracking these organisms in the environment provides a signature of the fecal pollution source. Unlike E. coli or enterococci that are general indicators common to almost all warm-blooded animals, alternative indicators have distinctive host patterns. Alternative indicators are extremely sensitive, and can be detected at 4-5 orders of magnitude higher concentrations compared to other constituents in sewage such as pathogens, pharmaceuticals, or personal care products.