Sewage Right To Know – What’s In Your Water?


Dogs playing in water | Katherine Baer

Katherine Baer

When there’s a sewage overflow or spill into your local creek or swimming hole, wouldn’t you want to know about it?

Well, in some places where there’s good monitoring and notification people do get this information about sewage overflows and can make their own choices about where and when to swim and play in their water.

South Carolina and New York recently passed state laws requiring sewage right to know, and some cities and counties also have strong sewage notification programs. But in many places there’s no such requirement, putting public health at-risk (pdf).

To fix this, Senator Frank Lautenberg recently introduced the Sewage Overflow Community Right to Know Act, which would create a consistent, national minimum standard under the Clean Water Act to require that communities monitor their sewage systems for overflows, and then notify the public when public health is at-risk.

Given that there’s still hundreds of billions of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage reaching our waters every year that makes good sense. An identical bill was broadly supported by clean water groups and the sewage industry several years ago.

During Hurricane Sandy, millions of gallons of sewage were discharged into the Raritan River and Newark Bay due to power outages. And while that sort of event doesn’t occur every day – there are still sewage overflows across the country on a regular basis – an estimated 23,000-75,000 every year (and that’s only the ones from certain types of sewage systems).

So we need to both invest and reinvest in sustainable, resilient water infrastructure that can better withstand more extreme weather and protect clean water, while also keeping people safe in the meantime by notifying then when it’s safe to swim or play in the water. We support smart investment in water infrastructure, but monitoring and notification should be prerequisites – if you don’t monitor how can you make smart investments with limited resources?

We should all have a right to know what’s in our water.