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The Delaware River has a pollution problem, and PWD canít scare it into going away

Philadelphians received a troubling email from the water department over Presidents' Day weekend, threatening higher water rates. Proposed new water quality standards will require the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) to reduce the pollution it discharges into the Delaware River in order to help improve water quality and save the endangered Atlantic Sturgeon. Instead of explaining this, PWD attempted to scare its customers and policymakers by tying a cleaner Delaware River to high rates. This is unconscionably false, and the PWD’s missive failed to mention the pollution problem in the Delaware River it helped create, and used misinformed data to rile up ratepayers. If you got this email, you may have asked yourself, "Why is my water department telling me that the benefits of clean water don't outweigh the costs?"  

Excuse Me, How Much?

PWD operates three wastewater treatment plants on the River:

  • Northeast Water Pollution Control Plant
  • Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant
  • Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant

It needs to upgrade these plants to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s proposed new water quality standards. In its recent communications to ratepayers, PWD alleged that these upgrades would cost $3 billion and that PWD would raise rates by $265 per year to pay for them. These amounts are outdated, based on false assumptions, and designed to make Philadelphians afraid. 

What Happened: The EPA's Involvement in the Delaware River

In December 2022, EPA granted PennFuture’s and our partners' petition for a rulemaking to establish new water quality standards under the Clean Water Act for dissolved oxygen in the urban Delaware River. In layman’s terms, the wastewater treatment plants along the Delaware River are old and using outdated technology. As a result, they fail to capture all of the pollution that enters it and instead dump that pollution into the river, including dangerous substances like ammonia, which dramatically lowers the amount of oxygen in the river through a process called “nitrification.” This ensures that the river is not suitable for most wildlife to live—including the endangered Atlantic Sturgeon—as well as people to use the river for recreation. In other words, this pollution leads to the Delaware River being a deadzone in and around Philadelphia.

Then, in December 2023, EPA released a draft of revised standards for public comment. With barely 48 hours remaining in the comment period, PWD chose to push out misleading information to its ratepayers, attacking the science behind the new standards, and claiming that it would enact exorbitant rate increases.  

This is misinformation. PWD's scare tactics, financial threats, and "either/or" mindset do a disservice to Philadelphians who deserve a clean and healthy river. Philadelphians should not have to worry about whether their water provider is trying to fight against clean water. 

The Science is Clear! 

The major government agencies—EPA and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC)— that watch over the Delaware River agree. Wildlife, including the endangered Atlantic Sturgeon, live in the urban reaches of the Delaware River, and they need higher dissolved oxygen regularly to thrive. Stronger water quality standards that reduce pollution in the river and increase dissolved oxygen levels are essential to restore these majestic creatures to full population health, protect other fish vital to the river ecosystem, and support recreational and commercial fishing. You can read more about this in PennFuture’s comments

Of course, getting the water to hold higher dissolved oxygen levels does not happen overnight. The dissolved oxygen levels in the Delaware River are low because of discharges from wastewater treatment plants.

To prevent this nitrification process from happening in the Delaware River, PWD needs to upgrade their wastewater treatment plants. The plants need to reduce the amount of ammonia they discharge, or nitrify it, before discharging it so it won't pull dissolved oxygen out of the Delaware River.

PWD's Eye-Popping $3 Billion Cost Estimate Is Too Bad To Be True

PWD’s email to ratepayers told them that it would cost $3 billion to upgrade its three facilities. That number sounds shocking. PWD linked to some sources connecting to a report that the DRBC commissioned in 2021 to estimate conservative upgrade costs for PWD’s plants, under four possible scenarios–and PWD’s number only looks at the most expensive one. Again, this number is not based on the cost of the actual proposed regulation. A more realistic estimate would look at the specific requirements of the proposed regulation. What PWD has done here is like getting a single quote for a home-improvement project where you include every possible upgrade, just to see how much it’d all cost.  

Importantly, EPA provided a different estimate for the costs of upgrading. EPA's estimate for upgrading all of the impacted wastewater treatment plants—only three of which are PWD’s—is $137 million per year. Let’s repeat that: That is $137 million for all the plants along this stretch of the Delaware. EPA estimates that PWD’s three plants will require approximately $78 million per year. But PWD told ratepayers it needs $3 billion for just its three plants and didn’t provide ratepayers any sense of what that could mean per year. The math doesn’t add up!

PWD didn’t tell ratepayers, but later in the week wrote in its official comments to EPA, that it commissioned its own studies to get its own cost estimates. However, PWD hasn’t made it clear what the basis is for its estimates. Without understanding how PWD got to the numbers it did, it is hard for anyone else to evaluate what the costs are and how to pay for them. 

Why Water Rates Don't Need To Increase

Here’s the kicker: PWD does not have to raise rates to pay for all of these upgrades. It can take advantage of significant state and federal infrastructure funding. Funds are available through several federal programs—the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), and other sources—to make the necessary improvements to its wastewater treatment plants.  

Municipalities and utilities like PWD have the opportunity to access federal funds for system upgrades. On February 20, 2024, the Biden administration announced over $5.8 billion for states, Tribes, and territories to invest in drinking water and clean water infrastructure upgrades. The funding focuses on essential water infrastructure that protects public health and treasured water bodies nationwide. Almost half of this funding will be available as grants or principal forgiveness loans, ensuring funds reach underserved communities most in need of investments in water infrastructure. 

In total, the Biden administration has invested $50 billion in the nation's water infrastructure through the BIL. Pennsylvania's water infrastructure has already benefited—receiving $782,982,000 in investments from the BIL since 2022

The ARPA is another source of federal funds. Philadelphia received $1.4 billion from the federal government via ARPA to assist with relief efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, and to invest in its water infrastructure. Philadelphia must allocate $449 million by the end of this year. To date, it has not done so.

Philadelphia can use the ARPA funding to invest in long-term upgrades to our aging water infrastructure system and reduce the need to fund these projects through debt service or rate increases. It can do all this without negatively impacting PWD’s ability to borrow money at the most favorable rates.

Indeed, PWD has already planned to do at least a portion of this work. PWD intends to build a sidestream treatment facility to reduce the ammonia load moving through the Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant. PWD's own estimates are that this sidestream plant will solve 10% of the ammonia problem by itself. PWD plans to pay for this through a grant from Pennsylvania's PENNVEST fund, not through an increase in water rates. 

Philadelphia Can—And Should—Have Both a Healthy Delaware AND Affordable Water Rates

PWD’s actions to set up a false narrative is a loss for us all and greatly reduces our confidence in its ability to manage Philadelphia’s aging water system. To start rebuilding trust, PWD should publicly rescind its e-mail and update its information to reflect the truth—upgrading its three wastewater treatment plants is necessary and can be done without raising water rates.

We all want the same thing—a healthy Delaware and affordable water rates. Instead of fear-mongering, PWD should figure out how to make the river cleaner and healthier and what resources are available to help fund that work. PennFuture will continue to hold PWD accountable for equitable rates and a healthy and productive Delaware River. Millions of people use the river for recreation, food, and work. Our goal is to ensure they can do so for years to come.

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