The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Sewage Spills Increasing

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The biggest problem can be the smallest thing, and that's the case in the sewer world.

More than 20 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into California waterways last year, according to the state Department of Water Resources Control Board. That's not counting the partially treated sewage that makes its way into our water from overflows and sewer system malfunctions.

Many big sewer pipes are old, and many of the sewage treatment plants are antiquated. But the biggest problem faced by sewer systems in California is the tiny pipe called the lateral.

That's the pipe that runs from your home to the street, the small pipes under all of our homes that end up joining the bigger sewer pipes. When those pipes develop cracks, water leaks into them.

Storm water itself would not overwhelm a sewage system, because it's designed to be a closed system. Storm water is not supposed to BE in sewer pipes. So in one way, it shouldn't even matter what the weather is like – storm water shouldn't really mix with sewage at all.

But during a rainstorm, water seeps into your broken lateral pipe, and all your neighbors' pipes, and that rainwater mixes with sewage in the sewer pipes, and the volume of water/sewage can actually build up far beyond the capacity of the sewer pipe. And in the same way, thousands and thousands of gallons of water mixed in with the sewage can swamp a treatment plant during a rainstorm.

That's the number one concern of sewage treatment plants now. And the sewer districts need your help.

Those laterals are owned by homeowners. They're on private land, so the district can't just go in there and tear them up to replace or fix them.

However, most sewer districts offer a service where they will inspect your laterals to check for leaks, and many have started programs where the district will help pay the cost of repairing or replacing those pipes.

Sewer systems are run by local municipalities. Most communities have a local sewer district, and officials at the district can help you inspect and fix your lateral pipes.

Listen to the Sewage Spills Increasing radio report online.

 

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Category: Environment, Radio, Water

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About the Author ()

David Gorn is the former Deputy News Director of KQED Radio, and currently works as a freelancer for National Public Radio. He has worked for three daily Bay Area newspapers, has been Editor-in-Chief of several magazines, and has taught journalism at San Jose State University and San Francisco State University.
  • Stephanie Wickes

    As with most issues, I think that education is key in this situation. The best way to get results is to raise awareness about the problem. Also, replacing lateral lines is VERY expensive. Any help that can be offered to the property owner will initiate quick response.

  • Stephanie Wickes

    This is a very hazardous situation. Sewage spilling into water is not only hazardous to plant and animal life that occupies the water it is also quite hazardous to humans. Everything that goes down our drains goes into our sewer. Often times, consumers do not consider the ramifications of what we put in our drains. Many of our cleaning products are not biodegradable and are quite difficult to break down. Yet another concern is pharmaceuticals that we flush. When we take prescription medication what our bodies does not need or use it flushes out, which goes into the sewer.
    Our natural bodies of water are showing significant resistance to pollutants. Plant life and aquatic animal life are changing drastically in response to human pollution of all types. To preserve our precious ecosystem, we need to raise awareness and invoke change. One person cannot change the world, but many people taking small steps can.