I’ve sung the praises of Charles Duhigg’s reporting before, but he really got to the heart of the matter with this latest piece on sewage and stormwater.
It’s been a while since I visited this topic, and in the meantime it seems the holy grail of related medical research has been found: research connecting the sloppy way our aging sewers are handling waste with actual human sickness. According to Duhigg:
A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, focusing on one Milwaukee hospital, indicated that the number of children suffering from serious diarrhea rose whenever local sewers overflowed. Another study, published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, estimated that as many as four million people become sick each year in California from swimming in waters containing the kind of pollution often linked to untreated sewage.
I’ve written extensively about these problems in the Puget Sound region. Duhigg and the Times are taking it to the national level. And yet, Duhigg doesn’t forget to detail how the guys at the local sewer plant in Brooklyn get antsy when it starts raining much, generating stormwater that overpowers sewers in the Big Apple:
They choose cable television packages for their homes based on which company offers the best local weather forecasts. They know meteorologists by the sound of their voices. When the leaves begin to fall each autumn, clogging sewer grates and pipes, Mr. Connaughton sometimes has trouble sleeping.
“I went to Hawaii with my wife, and the whole time I was flipping to the Weather Channel, seeing if it was raining in New York,” he said.
The Times recounts how the EPA has been auditing these so-called “combined sewer overflows,” or CSOs, in various cities. Seattle and Portland are among those that must tell the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency how they intend to almost completely eliminate these overflows of raw sewage stuff in the future.
One point that’s left a little bit unclear in Duhigg’s story is that even if you eliminated all the sewage — more on that in a moment — you’d still have tons — and we do mean tons here — of untreated stormwater flowing into the local waterways in most communities. He hints at this overriding stormwater problem in this passage:
Several years ago, city officials estimated that it would cost at least $58 billion to prevent all overflows. “Even an expenditure of that magnitude would not result in every part of a river or bay surrounding the city achieving water quality that is suitable for swimming,” the department wrote. “It would, however, increase the average N.Y.C. water and sewer bill by 80 percent.”
Commendably, Duhigg also gets into the concept of “low impact development” I’ve covered previously, without using that term:
To combat these shifts, some cities are encouraging sewer-friendly development. New York, for instance, has instituted zoning laws requiring new parking lots to include landscaped areas to absorb rainwater, established a tax credit for roofs with absorbent vegetation and begun to use millions of dollars for environmentally friendly infrastructure projects.
Commenting on Duhigg’s piece, Nancy Stoner at the Natural Resources Defense Council picks up on his mention of Philadelphia, which also seems to be embracing low-impact development . And Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire recently handed out some dough for cities to work on that concept.
Last point, but it’s an important one: Given the massive amount of investment this nation faces in rebuilding sewage-conveyance and -treatment systems, should we be giving tax breaks or otherwise using public policy to encourage the use of composting toilets? That’s kinda the root of the problem, flushing, right?
We’ll return to that topic another day. In the meantime you can learn more here.
— Robert McClure