States Vary on Sewage Right-to-Know Policy

Have you been enjoying your summer, splashing in your stream and swimming in your local lake? You may think you know whether it’s safe to take a dip, but depending on where you live, there’s a good chance you have no idea.

Given that there is no consistent national standard requiring sewage system operators to alert the public about spills, states play a critical role in keeping their citizens safe. But what states require public notification after a sewer overflow – in which states can you dive into your local lake or river confident that you won’t be paddling through the waste your neighbor flushed down the drain the day before?

The answer: it depends where you live. American Rivers just released a report, What’s In Your Water: The State of Public Notification in 11 U.S. States, reviewing public notification policies across the country and found that Americans are not treated equally when it comes to their right to know, with many citizens kept in the dark. There is wide variation among and even within the 11 states we investigated.

In some states, strong notification laws are undermined by a complete lack of enforcement. In other states, the public regularly receives warnings about sewage spills despite a lack of laws or regulations requiring notification. Here is a snapshot of how these selected states compare:

  • Red Alert – No public notification regulations on a statewide basis and/or a complete lack of implementation — Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee
  • Orange Alert – Information is available sporadically, only for certain kinds of spills, or only in certain parts of the state — Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Oregon, Washington
  • Green Alert – Strong public notification measures and successful implementation — Maryland

Of these 11 states, only Maryland stands out as an example of states with strong public notification, showing how vulnerable many Americans are to sewage pollution and confusion over whether it’s safe to swim. It is precisely because of this information gap in many states that Congress must pass a consistent national public notification requirement.

H.R. 2452, the Raw Sewage Overflow Community Right to Know Act, would require all states to ensure that their residents are informed of sewage spills. Until we can eliminate sewage pollution, let’s end the policy of silence and allow all Americans to take their health and safety into their own hands by improving state and federal right-to-know policies. The full report is available at