What Lies Beneath

Green stormwater management (slow it down… soak it in) fascinates me in general with its applications for art, education and fun but its ability to help older cities address problems that arise from their degraded, combined sewer systems is what makes it so important to me. Whether the system is overburdened from a natural event such as the rainstorm Philadelphia saw last Friday, or by preventable technical malfunctions such as the ones referenced in the article below, our older cities can be helped by diverting rainwater away from our sewers and into our green spaces.

This article was first published on the Rutgers Association of Planning and Policy Students blog on July 26, 2011.

In light of the recent fire at New York City’s North River Sewage Treatment Plant which caused plant operations to cease for almost 48 hours and 360 million gallons of untreated wastewater to flow into the Hudson River, I hope people are starting to think more critically about what happens when it rains on the local Wal-Mart parking lot or what happens when you flush your toilet. In combined sewer system cities across the country, including New York City and Philadelphia, that rain water and waste water are funneled into the same pipe. In dry weather, the combined waters flow directly to the local water pollution control plant and all we have to worry about is how well that plant can actually clean that water and how much electricity it takes to run the plant. However, in wet weather (or when a fire outbreak causes plant operations to cease) this toxic mixture cannot be contained by the combined sewer system and the excess is piped directly into the local water body.

The alternative that cities that have developed more recently have implemented is a separate sewer system. In this system the stormwater and the wastewater are piped into separate systems so that sewage is always sent to the water pollution control plant and stormwater is always sent straight to the river. Unfortunately, it is a lose-lose situation. In dry weather, the combined system is better because it ensures that both forms of polluted water are treated. However, on average throughout the year, a separate sewer system is better because it ensures that the most obnoxious and toxic forms of waste (our sewage) are always treated.

In my opinion any sewer system based on grey infrastructure needs to be combined with innovative green stormwater infrastructure that minimizes the amount of rain water that is sent to the sewer system. With our current technologies and knowledge, we are able to treat a large amount of stormwater with natural infiltration systems and strategic vegetation such as green roofs and rain gardens. Hopefully some day we will have similar sustainable methods of treating our sewage wastewater as well.

What can we do today? Decrease surface parking lots, increase tree canopy, create legislation and crediting systems to encourage private sector implementation of rainwater harvesting and green roofs, and teach our kids to respect the life-sustaining water cycle.