combined sewer overflow

Tri, Tri, Tri Again for Clean Water

By Marguerite Huber and Dustin Renwick

From the left, cyclist Marguerite Huber, runner Dustin Renwick, and would-be swimmer Sarah Edwards.

From the left, cyclist Marguerite Huber, runner Dustin Renwick, and would-be swimmer Sarah Edwards.

When athletes register for a race, they invest money, time, and energy. My fellow EPA blogger, Dustin Renwick, and I signed up to be a part of a relay team competing in the Nation’s Triathlon here in Washington, D.C.

Dustin ran the 10k, I biked the 40k, but our swimmer didn’t even get wet.

Our teammate, and all of the other athletes, did not get to participate in the swim portion of the race because it had been cancelled due to unsafe water quality.

The night before the event, the local area experienced storms and heavy rainfall that caused a combined sewer overflow that sent a mixture of sewage and stormwater into the Potomac River just north of the triathlon swim starting line.

The District Department of the Environment informed race officials of the unhealthy conditions late that evening and due to the high levels of bacteria such as E. coli, they agreed to cancel the swim.

Although boating, kayaking, and paddle boarding are allowed in the Potomac River, “primary contact recreation activities,” like swimming, have been banned in the river within the District of Columbia since 1971, when District health officials and EPA sought to protect people and publicize the health hazards of local water bodies.

Since then, clean-up efforts have resulted in a cleaner Potomac. Special swimming events, such as the Nation’s Tri, could apply for exceptions to the rule as of 2007. Event organizers are required to monitor and analyze water quality samples prior to the event and submit a contingency plan in the event the District Department of the Environment determines the river is unsafe for swimming.

Despite the progress, sewer overflows can still harm river quality. The Nation’s Triathlon had to cancel the swim in 2011 as well.

Judging by social media reactions, most athletes felt the Nation’s Tri race officials made the right choice in cancelling the swim. Safety is important, no matter how many hours of training you have put in.

But the disappointment of several thousand athletes is only a symptom. This situation really calls attention to the need for improvement in our stormwater infrastructure.

The 772 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer systems can all be challenged by heavy rains that rush over urban impervious surfaces and into their sewers. This results in stormwater and untreated waste polluting our water bodies.

EPA has worked to promote green infrastructure practices to help minimize and prevent stormwater events that can threaten public health, all while protecting the quality of rivers, streams, and lakes. Green infrastructure techniques such as green roofs, permeable pavement, and rain gardens help slow down runoff and help water more naturally filter out excess nutrients and other pollutants on its way into the ground.

These kinds of activities help protect human health and the environment. Hopefully one day soon, as race contestants, we can count on completing the bike, run, and swim through our nation’s capital and in similar events across the country.

About the Authors: When student contractors Marguerite Huber and Dustin Renwick are not biking or running through the District, they can be found helping the science communication and innovation teams (respectively) in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Around the Water Cooler: Rivers offer food and fun (but only when clean)

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

This week, a colleague handed me the City Paper with an article about how thousands in the Washington, D.C. metro area eat catfish caught locally in the Anacostia River. The article saddened me for a variety of reasons. Mostly because fishing in our rivers, especially urban rivers, brings with it a host of public health concerns. Quite frankly, with combined sewer overflows and stormwater runoff flushing pathogens and chemicals into them, many of our rivers are kinda dirty. Yuck.

But despite the health advisories and warnings that consuming fish from the river can be hazardous to health, many people still do it. The article highlights a survey (partially funded by EPA, other government agencies and stakeholders) conducted to study fishing in the Anacostia  and determine the extent of consumption and sharing of fish from the river; awareness and attitudes among anglers about potential health risks; and, strategies for lessening the consumption of contaminated fish.

The study shows that the reasons people fish in the Anacostia are extremely complex, and are mostly related to economics and culture.

The good news is that EPA is working with local officials and stakeholders in Washington, D.C.  to clean up the Anacostia so it can be fishable and swimmable again. Earlier this year the Anacostia River Revitalization Fund was established.  The fund, which will invest $1 million in restoration activities this year, with a total goal of investing $5 million over the next three years, will be used to protect and restore the Anacostia River and to create a national model for watershed conservation. The National Fish and Wildlife Fund, in partnership with EPA and the DC Department of the Environment and with funding from corporate sponsors, created the fund, which will award grants to local partnering organizations.

In addition, EPA scientists have developed a variety of tools and models to look at ecological exposure.  This research on water is spread over several areas: detection, assessment, function, and outcomes so that we know what our water has been exposed to, can assess it and ultimately ensure that it is safe for drinking, fishing and even swimming .

The Anacostia River watershed is just one of many that need our help and attention to keep it clean so that it can once again be a source of food and recreation that we can be proud of.

To help protect your watershed, learn more here.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research team and a frequent “Around the Water Cooler” contributor.

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

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Around the Water Cooler: Soaking up Rainfall and Reducing Sewage Overflows

By Katie Lubinsky

Did you know that 14 billion gallons of untreated sewage overflows each year into Mill Creek from Cincinnati’s combined sewer system? Such overflows can harm environmental and public health and put cities, including Cincinnati, in violation of the Clean Water Act, resulting in costly fines.

In an attempt to mitigate this issue, EPA hydrologist Dr. Bill Shuster is leading a team of scientists to explore how cities can tap rain gardens and other types of “green infrastructure” in Cincinnati and other cities with combined sewer systems.

Combined sewer systems involve a network of grates and pipes that combine storm water runoff and wastewater—from streets, homes and businesses—into one major underground pipe where it flows towards a treatment plant. When heavy rains lead to too much water for the system to handle, the excess overflows directly into a nearby water body, untreated.

I met and filmed Dr. Shuster to explore how cities like Cincinnati can reduce the amount of water flowing into sewer systems. While traveling to a rain garden with Dr. Shuster, I noticed row-after-row of vacant lots. Where buildings had once stood, the lots are now filled with hard soil that acts like impermeable cement, shedding rainfall into the combined sewer system. Dr. Shuster’s research shows how green infrastructure could replace these vacant lots and reduce runoff.

While filming, I learned about Dr. Shuster’s research: green infrastructure soaks up stormwater and reduces the amount and rate of water going into the combined sewer system. Rain gardens are Dr. Shuster’s specialty. He helps install and measure their effectiveness in reducing runoff. Green Infrastructure combines good soils with plants that are tolerant of both drought and heavy rains. The rainfall is stored and infiltrated into the gardens, where it can provide water to other plants near by keeping excess water out of the sewer system!

His research is gaining momentum in other areas with combined sewer systems, most recently in Omaha, Nebraska. It not only helps the systems work well, but these rain gardens and green spaces aesthetically enhance communities and provide other important ecosystem services such as habitat and food for pollinators.

Instead of row-after-row of vacant lots or abandoned houses in our neighborhoods, green infrastructure can replace them and have positive effects for all.

About the author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Around the Water Cooler: Keeping Stormwater In Place

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

Raining in the city

No where to run: stormwater has no place to go but the sewer.

In the first post of my series on EPA water research, I gave a little history lesson and introduced green infrastructure. This week, we’re going to focus on the cost of combined sewer systems—to our health, our environment and even our economy.

There are hundreds of cities across the country that have combined sewer systems. For example, in New York City, more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewer overflows into the New York Harbor alone each year. Think about all the impermeable surfaces in the city: sidewalks, streets, roofs, patios. It’s a concrete jungle.

To manage stormwater—and set up scenarios to see the impact of development—EPA scientists are developing the Stormwater Calculator that estimates the annual amount of stormwater runoff from a specific site and provides city planners, developers, and property owners a way to calculate the result of specific actions on our waterways. The online tool will be available later this fall.

As stormwater flows over the surface of your property, driveways, parking lots, roofs, etc, it picks up lots of sediments, such as animal droppings, tire residue, motor oil, brake dust, deicing compounds (in the winter), fertilizers, pesticides, trash, heavy metals and other pollutants and carries them to the nearest storm drain.

Obviously, there are things that cities can do to help reduce stormwater run off, and the steep price tag that goes with the cost of separating the combined sewer systems.

For example, in Omaha, the city is testing green infrastructure throughout the city to help reduce the $1.7 billion sewer system separation project. EPA scientists are testing and monitoring soils in Omaha, and other cities such as Cleveland and Cincinnati, to measure how successful green infrastructure is at keeping the combined sewer overflows to a minimum.

City of Omaha

Cities like Omaha are looking for ways to use green infrastructure to reduce stormwater costs.

There are steps you can take too.

According to the University of Nebraska, for every 1,000 square feet of impermeable surface on your property, every 1 inch of rainfall generates approximately 626 gallons of water. If you add two 55 gallon rain barrels to your property, you now have water to irrigate your gardens. Add a rain garden, and you probably take care of much of the excess. Now, rain is absorbed back into our aquifers instead of rushing into the nearest storm drain, keeping waterways clean and ecosystems functioning.

Many states and counties subsidize the installation of green infrastructure on property, so check with your county and state government. It’s worth it to make sure we have clean water for generations to come.

About the Author: Known around the office as “AguaGirl,” Lahne Mattas-Curry works with EPA’s Safe and Sustainable Water Resources team and  communicates water research to anyone who will listen or read her blog posts.

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

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.