By Karina | November 25, 2009
The NY Times has another great piece out in their examination of the State of the Clean Water Act. Previously I’d commented on their article about toxic drinking water, and this new article discusses the slight issue of raw sewage being discharged into the water ways around major metropolises.
Oh, did that get your attention? Gross, right?
So, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this but there’s a little thing called a “combined sewer overflow.” In older cities it made a lot of sense to build one water conveyance for all water that needed to be taken out of the inner city – be it blackwater (a polite way of saying the stuff that comes from your toilet), greywater (from your sinks and showers) or rainwater washing off of roofs and roads. Everything went to the same outfall, and everything hits the same treatment plant on its way out. It made sense way back then because the population wasn’t so large that sewage was a serious health issue. Frankly, many sewers at the time didn’t have any treatment at all, they just went straight out to the river. The combined sewer overflows were just the fastest way to get the water out of town. Now that there are treatment plants in place, they aren’t sized large enough to handle all of the regular everyday sewage PLUS a rainstorm, so the plants are bypassed and raw sewage is shunted out into the outfall – usually the local river or lake nearest the town.
And what does this mean to you? Basically, it means that the raw sewage and other industrial pollutants can be flushed out when as little as 1/4″ rain falls, which can lead to downstream pollution, beach closures, and other health hazards. Not cool! The NYTimes article does a good job of presenting the issue with a discussion on how hard the plant operators work to avoid the overflows, and how stressful it is for them to have to bypass the plant. Check the EPA map up above for locations of the 740 communities with combined sewer overflows – unfortunately, they don’t seem to have an easily accessible list of town names:
And what to do about this? There’s a couple of immediate issues – one, you want to try and stop the water from rushing off of the street and into the sewer every time it rains. The simplest way to do this is a rain barrel (and save the water for later irrigation!), though you can also get into permeable pavement or green roofs if you have the time, property, and money. Also I’d recommend reading up on Green Infrastructure so you can be an informed advocate in your own community when the discussion comes up.The second issue is to reduce the amount of water that goes into the sewer PERIOD. This means looking into retrofitting your household fixtures in some way – be it adding a bottle of water to your toilet tank, getting a low-flow showerhead, or even taking the big step to installing a dual-flush toilet. I actually love this side of things – in many areas with combined sewer overflows there aren’t usually drought restrictions, so the old adages for water conservation don’t fly. However you have a better reason to conserve water in your home or business if it will help mitigate the effects of the combined sewer overflow – and that’s a great reason to cut back on water use!
Do you have a combined sewer overflow near you?
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