by Stan Laskowski

unregulated outfall

As more and more people throughout the world migrate to cities, it is good to remember urban area successes of some developed countries on World Toilet Day (November 19). Although much attention is rightly focused on rural areas as we plan for the SDG # 6 deadline in 2030, it is important to learn from these successes and to find ways to continuously improve approaches to these systems. Although these systems are often expensive, they can result in tremendous health benefits and also economic benefits. 

In the USA the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 mandated that wastewater treatment plants be upgraded to secondary treatment — or the level of treatment needed to meet ambient water quality standards — whichever was more stringent. The regulatory program (permits, monitoring, enforcement, penalties, etc.) to do this work was linked to federal financial assistance to upgrade these plants. This program, implemented by USEPA and their state partners was an amazing success with many streams attaining the ambient standards. Although it did not solve all the problems such as nonpoint source runoff, failing septic tanks, and control of some new pollutants, it offers large cities in developing countries one model to consider.

a chlorination station

Other developed countries established similar systems from which lessons can also be learned. When decision makers consider the establishment of a comprehensive urbanized wastewater system, they are often deterred by the cost, but considering these upgrades through the lens of a public health and economic cost of not adequately treating the wastewater and every dollar spent is exponentially rewarded. When pro-rated over the life of the projects, these costs compare very favorably with other capital costs expenditures.

Stan Laskowski is one of the founding members of the Global Water Alliance, formerly the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, and a former Senior Executive at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 3, where he served for over 31 years, including 15 years as the Deputy Regional Administrator for the Middle-Atlantic States. During his tenure at EPA, Stan managed Region 3’s NPDES program from 1973 until 1980, and is quite proud of all the pollution reduction gains which included issuing permits to over 1000 major sources during an 18-month period in 1973-74 when the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was in its infancy.