Sewage Problems and Solutions

The Clean Water Act has vastly increased the level of wastewater treatment in this country.  Currently over 200 million people are served by treatment plants that provide secondary or more advanced treatment, up from 140 million served by wastewater treatment, often at a minimal level in the late 1960s before the Act was passed. However, there are still more than 850 billion gallons of raw or untreated sewage that reach our streams, rivers, and lakes every year, and without a better approach to funding, enforcement, and innovation, the situation will continue to get worse. Climate change will exacerbate this problem by increasing the frequency and intensity of storms, which in turn is predicted to increase sewer overflows in areas including the Great Lakes and New England.

American Rivers is working to reverse the perfect storm that has resulted in increased sewage in our rivers and streams. We are seeking significant increases in funding for stormwater and wastewater infrastructure improvements through legislative change and in the federal budget. Our focus is on ensuring that there is both more money and that it is better spent – securing money for green infrastructure in the economic stimulus and beyond is one example.

We advocate for green infrastructure stormwater solutions (such as permeable pavement, green roofs, and rain gardens) that reduce stormwater runoff that flows into sewer systems and triggers sewer overflows. Already, cities like Philadelphia are incorporating these techniques into their Clean Water Act permits, and analysis shows that the benefits of this approach provide multiple benefits in addition to clean water including increased recreation days, better health, less traffic, and cleaner air. American Rivers works for state and federal water infrastructure policy and on the ground practices to make these approaches the first alternative instead of the last.

We are working in the Great Lakes region, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and nationally to urge communities to use these non-structural approaches as a central component of their stormwater management plans, mandated by federal Clean Water Act regulations to be implemented in small- and mid-sized communities across the country.

Finally, we are advocating for consistent sewage spill notification right to know requirements that will alert people when their waters are tainted with raw or partially treated sewage and continuing to monitor and fight any Clean Water Act rollbacks.

Sewage Pollution

Sewage pollution is caused by several factors, including failing and outdated infrastructure that is compounded by rapid, sprawling development that paves over the farms, forests, and wetlands that naturally soak up stormwater. As a result, rain and snow that would have naturally drained into the ground or slowly run off the land into streams now gets diverted through culverts, often discharging directly into public sewage systems where it combines with sewage and domestic wastewater. Even cities with separate sanitary sewers find that stormwater can flow through cracks and manhole covers into pipes that carry human waste, causing sewer overflows.

All of this increases the volume of wastewater that must be treated. Community sewage treatment facilities – already struggling to keep up with rapidly growing populations – are often overwhelmed, highlighting the need for better funding at all levels. Increased funding must be tied to better enforcement – a New York Times analysis revealed that Clean Water Act permit violations are common and enforcement infrequent.

While the solutions include more funding, better planning, and enforcement of existing clean water requirements, the strategy of some in the regulated community is to decrease public health and environmental protections. This was the case with the proposed sewage dumping policy where EPA would have allowed sewage treatment plants to bypass secondary treatment by sanctioning the “blending” of fully and partially treated sewage during periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, circumventing the biological treatment that eliminates disease-causing germs or viruses since passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Fortunately, public outcry forced EPA to rescind this policy.

Health Effects of Sewage

The public health and environmental implications of sewage overflows are tremendous. Sewage pollutes our waters with pathogens, excess nutrients, heavy metals, and other toxins. It kills aquatic life and creates algal blooms that can suffocate fisheries.

Even worse, sewage carries pathogens that can end up in our drinking water supplies and swimming areas. These disease-causing microorganisms cause diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory, and other infections, hepatitis, dysentery, and other diseases. Common illnesses caused by swimming in and drinking untreated or partially treated sewage include gastroenteritis, but sewage is also linked to long term, chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.

Experts estimate that there are 7.1 million mild-to-moderate cases and 560,000 moderate-to-severe cases of infectious waterborne disease in the United States each year and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 1.8 and 3.5 million people are estimated to get sick from recreational contact with sewage from sanitary sewer overflows annually. While most people recover from these diseases, they can be deadly for children, the elderly, and other patients with weakened immune systems who comprise approximately 30% of our population at any one time.

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Sewage Right to Know

American Rivers is the lead advocate for sewage right to know laws at the national and state level. Sewage spills threaten drinking water, spoil recreation, hinder economic values, and harm wildlife. The goal of sewage right to know is to raise awareness of the frequency and consequences of sewage overflows to create political pressure for increased investments in better solutions to sewage treatment and stormwater management.  American Rivers is partnering with public health groups, the utility community, and local river conservation groups to pass sewage right to know.

Right to know laws are an effective way to protect public health and spur environmental improvement. Letting people know what threats they are facing allows them to make choices to protect themselves and their families and builds support for change.

A good example is the Toxics Release Inventory that requires businesses to publicly report releases of toxic emissions over a certain amount annually and then the emissions are posted publicly on EPA’s website. As a result of this program, emissions of toxics subject to reporting emissions have decreased dramatically by 48% between 1998 and 2000. Other laws require immediate disclosure of environmental health hazards such as tainted food and workplace hazards.

Surprisingly, despite the known risks associated with untreated sewage, there are no consistent nationwide requirements for the public to be notified when sewage spills occur and state requirements are inconsistent where they exist. Unlike the alert system for bad air days with the color coded flags and news announcements, only in some places will you know when there is sewage in your water and as a result you, your family, and your pets may unknowingly be swimming in sewage. This is why American Rivers is working for federal legislation that would require notification of public health authorities, the public, and downstream water intakes whenever there is a sewage spill that could endanger public health.

The Sewage Overflow and Community Right to Know Act (H.R. 753) passed the House of Representatives as part of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Senate companion legislation (S.937) has passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.