Mystery Unclogged Part II

Storm drainby Sarah at ProgressiveKid

(Read Part I of this two-part series on our national wastewater problem.)

In Part I we examined the contents of our wastewater and how the most common wastewater treatment systems work. Now we will examine how well the systems work at keeping those problematic wastewater contents from being released into the environment.

The State of Our Infrastructure

In the American Society for Civil Engineers’ 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, wastewater management in the United States was given a grade of D- (down from a D in 2001). Here is a summary:

Aging wastewater management systems discharge billions of gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. surface waters each year. The EPA estimates that the nation must invest $390 billion over the next 20 years to replace existing systems and build new ones to meet increasing demands. Yet, in 2005, Congress cut funding for wastewater management for the first time in eight years. The Bush administration has proposed a further 33% reduction, to $730 million, for FY06.

The Pharmaceutical Problem

Just this March the Associated Press released the results of its investigation on pharmaceuticals in the nation’s drinking water. The A.P. reported that the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans was found to contain, among other things, antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones. The reason for this, of course, is that Americans dump their unused rugs down the drain.

Sources of Water Contamination

The Natural Resources Defense Council 2007 report Testing the Waters offers a comprehensive examination of all of the sources of water contamination across the country. Included in the report are the following statistics:

  • The EPA estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater make their way into our surface waters each year.
  • Combined sewer systems (CSSs), which carry raw sewage from residences and industrial sites and stormwater runoff from streets, discharge 850 billion gallons of raw sewage every year during overflows.
  • Although an EPA policy that aims to reduce these overflows has been in effect since 1994, nearly all combined sewer systems continue to overflow when it rains. As of 2004, only 59 percent of communities with CSSs had submitted their plans for controlling them.
  • Sanitary sewer systems (SSSs) carry only raw sewage from residences and businesses. The EPA has estimated that between 23,000 and 75,000 overflows of these systems occur annually, discharging a total of 3 to 10 billion gallons of sewage per year. In January 2001, the EPA proposed SSS regulations that would have required improvements to the systems. The Bush administration failed to act on these recommendations.
  • The American Housing Survey of 2001 reported that 6 percent of septic systems fail annually, resulting in improper treatment of 66 billion to 144 billion gallons of sewage.

Your Dreams Down the Drain

Peer down into the depths of one of your drains. You are looking at your future. Whatever goes down that drain is going to come back at you sooner or later in some way.

Some of what you flush gets broken down by bacteria. Some of it gets eliminated with chemicals. But a lot of it doesn’t.

Up to 70 percent of wastewater treated by primary treatment systems gets released. Nitrogen, phosphates, pathogens, and organic materials are washed away by flooding and heavy rain, washed away by underwater springs, absorbed into groundwater, or carried to bodies of water like lakes and oceans where they kill aquatic life. And, even though bacteria are helping us break down all of this waste, they are depleting the oxygen in our bodies of water.

We watch as our inconveniences wash away, but they don’t wash away far enough. In the world of climate change, one that combines increased rain and flooding with water shortages, what you flush is going to affect me and what I use in my washing machine is going to affect you. What each of us sees going down the drain is not only what we don’t want but potentially also a great deal of what we do.

Image by Chris Darling, 2005, Creative Commons license

©2008 ProgressiveKid

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3 Responses

  1. […] Mystery Unclogged Part II […]

  2. […] Part II of this two-part series on our national wastewater problem we will examine the effectiveness of […]

  3. Hi Sarah

    Love your blog!

    Americans really should stop dumping their unused carpet down the drain – no wonder it gets so clogged 😉

    Seriously though, it’s a good point you make and I think that the closer one is to one’s site of waste disposal the more one thinks about what gets disposed, which is a big plus for on-site wastewater systems (at least after you’ve used them for a while and had some feedback from them).

    The issue of excessive wastewater volume is also educative when it’s your own garden getting boggy! Which of course leads to less water use. Closer feedback loops are a major factor in encouraging behaviour change – and reticulated (public sewer) systems tend to make any feedback extremely distant in time and kms, meaning it’s hard to see the connection between what you flush and the effects.

    Check out my blog http://www.watermiles.org for some posts and articles on water and energy and their links, which I hope you’ll find interesting.

    Cheers

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