Executive Summary

In the United States, more frequent and intense storms have been threatening vital water infrastructure, including wastewater and drinking water systems (“Adapting to Climate Change…”, 2016). These storms, and subsequent flooding, can cause power outages that disrupt the functioning of these systems. One example is from the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District located in North Andover, Massachusetts. In 2017, a storm disrupted the power for 13 hours, and as a result, 8 million gallons of partially treated sewage water was spilled into the Merrimack River. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) has been attempting to investigate and record emergency backup plans for drinking and wastewater treatment facilities. This, however, has proven difficult due to the lack of consistency in the currently available data. We collaborated with the MassDEP to focus on gathering a more complete dataset on backup power in wastewater treatment facilities, and gained a better understanding of current emergency capabilities.  

The goal of this project was to assess backup power capacities and needs of wastewater facilities in Massachusetts, to develop informational resources for regulators and emergency planners.

Objectives and Methodology:

We accomplished our goal by completing three objectives:

  1. Characterizing wastewater facilities’ emergency power capabilities and emergency resource knowledge
  2. Determining facility vulnerability and risks associated with power loss
  3. Create informational tools to improve emergency preparedness in wastewater facilities

For objective 1, we conducted semi-structured interviews with a Deputy Regional Director (DRD) of the Bureau of Water Resources, and 3 wastewater Section Chiefs. We gained a better understanding of how water systems work, what sort of plans are being used already, and past instances of power loss. We also gathered feedback on what information is useful to managers, regional directors and sections chiefs to plan for emergencies.

For objective 2, we assessed the risk of power outages, for which we considered risks of flooding which can contribute to power loss. We considered  a facility’s ability to cope with a power outage as a function of vulnerability. This includes, how long a facility can run on backup power, whether emergency power can operate the full system or only part of it, generator age, maintenance of equipment, and ability to get needed supplies from neighboring systems. Using the data from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showing Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) flood zones and self reported flood risks, we determined that sites with high self-reported flood risk would be at greatest risk of a power outage. Survey data, obtained by employees at the MassDEP, included information about facilities that have their own form of backup power, their emergency power capacities, and those who partake in mutual aid sharing of resources. When we assessed the vulnerabilities in wastewater facilities, we focused on the sites without adequate emergency power and those who are not involved in mutual aid agreements.

For our final objective, we developed the best way to present information. We developed  a prototype map to highlight Massachusetts’ facility emergency power capabilities, flood zones, mutual aid participation, etc. The map can be used to identify which specific facilities are more vulnerable, allowing the MassDEP to target those facilities that could benefit from additional  resource implementation. DEP staff suggested that information could be shared effectively with a pamphlet for the facility managers to increase awareness of resources available to them. We used multiple resources from EPA.gov, Mass.gov, and other outlets of information, to identify resources available to wastewater facilities regarding emergency preparation. The pamphlet contains explanations on WARN, grant aid options, and other ideas of backup power.


Our interviews and discussions with the MassDEP have helped us discover the reasonings behind the lack of efficient emergency backup power response within facilities.

  1. Data sets available to DEP are incomplete

We have recognized the need to improve the quality of compiled data in the MassDEP database since some of the information on wastewater facilities is incomplete. The data set show that 66% of facilities in the database have not reported whether they have backup power, or if the backup power is adequate enough to operate the facility. We were not able to completely assess which facilities are considered vulnerable throughout the entirety of Massachusetts, and were limited only to facilities on which MassDEP has reported data.

  1. Findings related to future initiatives for emergency power

MassDEP is moving towards a green and sustainable energy initiative through the clean energy results program, which is why we looked into other forms of power that are more energy efficient. We have discovered some current options that include solar arrays and wind turbines to provide additional power, which proves more sustainable than diesel generators. These arrays and turbines can cut down electrical cost and usage for the facilities.

  1. What DRDs and Section Chiefs want to know about emergency planning

During our interviews, we asked the DRDs and Section Chiefs for feedback on what kind of information would be helpful to include in a digital map. As an example, we sent them the EPA map key that we referenced, which can be seen in Appendix E. Overall, they expressed that the EPA key was informative and easy to understand. As a result, we used the EPA map key as guidance for our deliverable. It was also found that a frequent concern that DRDs and Section Chiefs mentioned to us is a lack of funding for facilities to update or enhance their backup power capabilities. Another emergency response aid we decided to focus on WARN because it exclusively involves public systems, which is the main focus for MassDEP. Since WARN is a vital tool to increase cooperation between facilities, our sponsors emphasized the necessity of sharing information regarding the program with facility managers. This can be very useful to facility managers trying to recover from a power outage.



Based on our study we proposed five recommendations to the MassDEP. These recommendations are intended to help increase knowledge of vulnerable facilities in Massachusetts, and prompt actions to minimize their vulnerability.


  1. MassDEP should implement a system for more reliable and accurate data gathering

    While analyzing and combining the data set, we concluded that the lack information can directly hinder effective emergency response plans. We recommend that reporting backup power capacity be made a requirement for every facility. It also would be useful to conduct another complete survey on emergency power because currently there are many gaps in the data on important information that could be useful to the MassDEP. Once the facilities are surveyed, it is recommended the MassDEP do a vulnerability assessment. This assessment can assist with comprehending the range of vulnerability from site to site.

  2. MassDEP should improve on informational resources to support emergency planning

    A future project we recommend is to complete the digital map resource so that it includes all wastewater facilities in the Commonwealth. Our map prototype is not completed, and currently shows three locations and the categories on vulnerabilities we wanted to highlight:

We believe it would be a useful tool in assessing and prioritizing facilities’ vulnerabilities during an emergency or power outage. The map can be completed using the available survey data.


  1. The MassDEP should create a self-assessment tool for facility managers


Future projects should create a self-assessment tool that can aid facility managers track a site’s information, gauge its vulnerability and identify areas or methods for improvement. We also found an apparent need for targeted funding to help wastewater facilities improve their backup power capabilities and reliability. We recommend that an increased focus on what grants are available to the facilities for backup power infrastructure should be prioritized. The pamphlet deliverable is one method of spreading information on the types of grants available but it is recommended that other methods also be implemented.


  • The MassDEP  should create targeted funding for backup power through a website


Based on our project analysis and assessment of the existing resources available, interviews with MassDEP’s DRDs, Section Chiefs and feedback from our sponsors, we see an apparent need for targeted funding to help wastewater facilities improve their backup power capabilities and reliability. The pamphlet deliverable is one method of spreading information on the types of grants available but it is recommended that other methods also be implemented. For example, by compiling grant or funding information and application links into one webpage could make access easier for site managers. It could be organized by factors like facility size requirements, public vs private grants, grants for renewable energy, etc.


  • The MassDEP should conduct similar vulnerability assessments on the drinking water facilities in Massachusetts


While power outages in wastewater facilities are a large concern, it is also important to understand and address vulnerabilities in the drinking water facilities around Massachusetts. We recommend that the MassDEP do similar surveys and vulnerability assessments on drinking water facilities.



When power outages occur in wastewater treatment facilities, there can be very serious consequences. Any spills or leaks of untreated sewage water into the community can cause very serious health risks from parasites and harmful bacteria. This is why it is so vital to ensure that wastewater treatment facilities continue to operate even when the main electrical grid goes out. The MassDEP is taking the initiative to document the emergency power capabilities in the water sector of Massachusetts. Through this project we have concluded that the lack of data inhibits the MassDEP from understanding vulnerabilities and needs of municipal wastewater facilities. Further efforts need to be taken to improve data quality and increase focus on the needs of facilities.