Houston’s $2 billion sewage consent decree: Two years down, 13 years to go

Kristen Schlemmer
April 1, 2023

Are we any closer to finding justice in the sewers?

Two years have passed since a federal judge in Houston approved a landmark agreement requiring the City of Houston to invest $2 billion in local sanitary sewer upgrades over 15 years. The negotiated settlement, known as a consent decree, resulted from a federal enforcement action prompted by Bayou City Waterkeeper’s investigation in 2018. Our analysis of City of Houston data identified over 9,300 sewage overflows that potentially violated the Clean Water Act and had disproportionate effects on lower-wealth, Black, and brown communities across Houston. The agreement requires the City to meet strict timelines to eliminate releases of untreated sewage into local neighborhoods, parks, and bayous. The City must also pay penalties for ongoing releases in the meantime.

We are leveraging this milestone toward community education and action. Sewage overflows continue to present an issue of environmental justice in Houston, disproportionately affecting Black, brown, and low-wealth communities. Over the year ahead, we are focused on addressing a key source of this environmental injustice, not fully addressed by the consent decree: problems in private laterals, the lines connecting homes and businesses to the main sewer system. 

To commemorate the first two years of the consent decree, and understand the on-the-ground effects of this once-in-a-generation investment, we will be launching resources and tools rolled out during the month of April. Learn more on our new Justice in the Sewers hub.