sewer system

EPA Wants Creative Solutions to a Common Problem

By Dustin Renwick

Flushing is the easy part. What happens in our sewer systems after that remains unseen, hidden in the aging network of millions of miles of underground pipes.

Sometimes the pipes overflow due to heavy rain and storms. In fact, the Cincinnati area’s combined sewer systems discharge about 16 billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with storm water in just one year. This gunk pollutes local streams and rivers, as we’ve explained before.

One problem in reducing stormwater overflows is a lack of real-time information. In many areas, sewage overflows require manual monitoring from local utilities. Meanwhile, some wireless sensors do exist, but their cost remains prohibitively high for wide use.

EPA has partnered with Cincinnati Innovates, the Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District, and the Northern Kentucky Sewer District 1 to launch a new challenge that calls for creative thinkers and fresh ideas.

The challenge will reward designs that create inexpensive, low-maintenance sensors to help monitor sewer overflows. This new generation of sensors would allow companies to improve their operational efficiency and meet sewer overflow requirements set by the Clean Water Act.

EPA will reward $10,000 for at least one submitted  solution. The challenge closes Sept. 2.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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High School and College Students Introduced to Waste Water Treatment in New York City

By Raymond Kvalheim

What did you do this past summer?

I know 23 students who worked in NYC wastewater treatment plants for the experience of a lifetime.
A century ago New York City had animal carcasses and garbage floating in the harbor, rivers and canals that were essentially open sewers. People were dying of cholera and diphtheria from wastewater discharges.

How times have changed! Today the New York City sewer system is an engineering marvel – an underground labyrinth of more than 6,000 miles of water mains and pipes that handles more than a billion gallons of waste every day.

During the last 10 summers nearly 200 city students have participated in the very successful Youth-in-the-Environment program.

The Youth-in-the-Environment Program in NYC is a cooperative between Bronx Community College, Woodycrest Human Development Center, Inc. and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and EPA. These agencies have contributed to the success of the program along with in-kind contributions. Each year the NYCDEP has improved and expanded their support from all the established partners by adding a variety of jobs for participation by the students. Our success can be verified by the testimonials provided by both the youth and the New York City DEP host site supervisors.

Some of the areas of interest include:

  • Working in a Pump House – Learning about warehousing, conducting inventory control, sorting supplies, storehouse operation and maintenance.
  • Working in Water Registry – Learning about customer service, cashier, processing payments, processing, validating and data entry of tap orders, engineering department office support.
  • Working in North River – Learning about warehouse, conducting inventory control, sorting supplies, storehouse operation and maintenance.
  • Working in Marine Services – Performing office support, clerical, payroll prep and data entry.

Students have gained laboratory skills in process, metals, biological, chemistry labs and research labs that reinforce STEM skills. These youth acquired exceptional skills in sample preparation, pH, temperature, conductivity analysis, sample distillation and sample evaporation.

Youth assigned to the Water Registry have assisted in: More

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Around the Water Cooler: Leaving the Outhouse Behind

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Stormwater flows from a large pipe.

Green infrastructure helps keep stormwater in place.

This week, and every Thursday that follows, I’ll introduce you to the EPA scientists and engineers who work to make sure our water stays clean and that we have enough for generations to come.

Today I’m kicking off a series on green infrastructure while we recognize the role of science and innovation in the Clean Water Act, which turns 40 this year.

What is green infrastructure? It’s actually just a fancy term for rain gardens, rain barrels and cisterns that keep excess water out of our storm drains.

But let’s start with some history. In the mid-1800s, flush toilets came to America. Everyone wanted one so that no one would have to make that nightly cold, dark trek to the outhouse. Soon, though, it became obvious that when you “flush” the toilet inside the nice warm house, the waste has to go somewhere. Initially that somewhere was our streets.

Thankfully, that did not last long.

Motivated by smelly city streets, municipalities added underground pipes to carry the wastewater from homes and businesses and deposit in waterways where it could be diluted and carried away in the current. The pipes, though, also carry stormwater that rushes off the streets during heavy rain.

Welcome to the combined sewer system.

There are approximately 800 cities and towns across America that still use combined sewer systems, including big ones such as New York and Chicago, and smaller ones like Omaha and Louisville.

Today, these systems don’t feed directly into our waterways. The water is first sent to a treatment plant where it is cleaned.

The problem with these combined sewer systems is that when it rains hard, the polluted wastewater doesn’t always make it to the treatment facility, and instead goes directly to our rivers, streams and other waterways. (A violation of the Clean Water Act. And also pretty gross.)

But changing out all these networks of pipes—called gray infrastructure—is costly. EPA scientists and engineers have been working with several municipalities around the country to find alternatives—innovative solutions to efficiently and inexpensively reduce runoff flowing into combined sewer systems.

Each Thursday over the next few weeks I’ll highlight green infrastructure research and best practices while sharing ways you can make a difference in your community.

In the meantime, check out this interactive tool from the Arbor Day Foundation to compare the difference between a community with increased green infrastructure in the form of more trees versus a community with less. Which would you rather live in?

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with  EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team, drinks a lot of water and  communicates water research to anyone who will listen.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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