Questions and Answers Regarding Wastewater Bypasses During a Flood

Sept. 18, 2013 -- Below are some of the more commonly asked questions that the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality has received regarding wastewater bypasses during a flood:

What occurs during a wastewater treatment bypass?
A: As the name implies, a bypass refers to wastewater that bypasses typical treatment at the wastewater treatment facility. This can occur during flooding when a wastewater treatment facility is located in a low-lying area, and the facility is flooded or otherwise rendered incapable of effectively treating the wastewater. The untreated wastewater bypasses usual treatment and is sent directly into the river. This is a “last resort” type of alternative that is used only when other effective means of dealing with the wastewater is not available. It is used to protect public infrastructure, including trying to prevent wastewater backup from entering people’s homes, which would pose a threat to public health and property damage.

Q: What is in the wastewater that is being bypassed?

A: From households, it includes the water and wastes that come from your sinks, showers, tubs, toilets, dishwashers, washing machines, and floor drains. It is mostly water, but can contain human wastes, food wastes, detergents and anything else that gets washed down your drain. Wastewater can also come from industries. Like households, this waste can come from sinks, toilets, and floor drains, and it also can include waste from food processing or manufacturing processes. Any industry that discharges significant wastewater must obtain a permit from NDEQ which limits the types and volumes of wastes in their discharge water.
Wastewater that is sent to wastewater treatment plants typically includes these household and industrial sources, and, depending on the system, can also include groundwater, surface water and stormwater.

Q: What are the potential environmental and health impacts? What should I do to avoid any health impacts?

A: Avoid any physical contact with the water. Floodwaters can have dangerous currents, and there are also hazards of pathogens in the water. If you have been in contact with floodwaters, avoid touching your mouth or eyes, and try to thoroughly wash off as quickly as possible. Also, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services advises that wells owners near flooded areas should take proactive measures to prevent private well contamination, and have their wells tested. See the related information at DHHS’s web site at *.

Q: What is being done to prevent bypasses?

A: There has been a concerted effort at the local, state and federal levels to prevent bypasses from occurring. These efforts include diking and sandbagging to prevent floodwaters from reaching wastewater facilities and finding alternative discharge methods if the outflow point of treated wastewater is under water. Protecting infrastructure and public health and safety are top priorities of these efforts.

Q: Is notification required?

A: Yes. Those responsible for municipal and privately-owned wastewater treatment facilities are required in their permits to notify NDEQ of any bypass. They are also required to notify the public and downstream users of the bypass. (See related NDEQ Fact Sheet
“Information for Those Considering Bypassing Wastewater Treatment.”)

Q: When will bypasses end? Are more on the way?

A: This is a unique flooding situation, because it is predicted that river levels may be above flood stages for months. In some cases, those who are currently bypassing do not have any other feasible short-term alternative, and may need to continue bypassing until water levels recede. In addition, if there is heavy precipitation in areas upstream, flooding could become dramatically worse in a short period of time. Numerous wastewater treatment facilities in low-lying areas on the Missouri and Platte Rivers are vulnerable to flooding and the potential for bypasses.

The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, in close coordination with other state agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the affected municipalities are making every effort to protect wastewater facilities and keep them operating. In the event the flooding results in an interruption of service, every effort will be made to restore the service as soon as possible when flood waters recede.

NDEQ and other state agencies will continue working with those involved with wastewater treatment facilities, with the shared goal of minimizing the amount of bypassing and restoring wastewater treatment services as quickly as possible.

Q: Can the state provide assistance in these types of situations?

Yes. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), which provides low-interest loans and grants to wastewater treatment facilities, and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF), which provides loans and grants to drinking water facilities, do have specific emergency assistance provisions. Specifically,
Chapter 3 of Title 131 -- Rules and Regulations for the Wastewater Treatment Facilities and Drinking Water Construction Assistance Programs, states that a loan applicant may apply for emergency assistance under the CWSRF and the DWSRF. Under the CWSRF Act, a municipality may apply for an emergency grant or loan to repair or replace Wastewater Treatment Works which have been damaged or destroyed by natural disaster or other unanticipated actions or circumstances.

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