We frequently talk about the critical need to address the issues of water infrastructure and the impact it has on the reliable delivery of clean, safe water to homes, businesses, and hospitals. We’ve also painted a picture of how critical infrastructure repair and replacement are to everything from the operation of farms and factories to personal hygiene and public health. But today, I’m going to turn our eye to the dirtier side of things. That’s right, today we are going to consider the wastewater that infrastructure takes out of our homes, offices and public places.
Wastewater consists mostly of gray water and black water. Gray water is wastewater from bathing, washing hands, brushing teeth, laundry, dishwashing and similar tasks and duties performed in the home or place of business. It contains the water itself, dirt, food particles, soap residue and basically anything that makes its way down the drain. Black water is the wastewater generated from toilets. In addition to human waste, it contains other items people flush, including toilet tissue and wipes. If you think of the gray and black water leaving your home on an ordinary day…well, it’s just plain gross. Already, you can see why it’s vital that all the infrastructure in place to keep wastewater safely contained until it reaches the treatment plan is in tip-top working order!
Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to ensure this happens. Pipes and other sewage collection structures are old and continue to age. Additionally, populations continue to grow, and the intensity and frequency of storms have increased, putting greater demands on existing infrastructure. Lastly, societal habits have become major contributors to the decline and malfunction of sewage infrastructure. The more “non-flushables,” such as disposable wipes, condoms, paper towels and worse, are flushed—as well as taboo kitchen items such as grease that go down the drain—the worse the buildup becomes in sewer lines. That puts more pressure on aging pipes. All these factors inevitably translate to inadvertent discharges and overflows into our streets and neighborhoods above, underground aquifers, and adjacent rivers and streams.
It’s not a pretty sight or thought – raw wastewater flowing where we live, work, and play – the greater concern are the harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites and other microorganisms, many of which come from human waste. Release these nasty “critters” into public areas, and you have a risk of illness and disease being contracted and spread by humans and animals. Throughout history, sewage on the streets and in our waterways has caused population-destroying outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid, and to this day is feared for its ability to bring about everything from encephalitis to hepatitis.
Some recent examples of major sewage spills in developed countries include a 143 million gallon spill in Tijuana in 2017, and a 2016 spill of 29 million gallons in south Florida. If more reporting on the largest sewage spills in recent history and everything discussed above isn’t enough to get you more active in protecting and advocating for the health of our water infrastructure, then read this harrowing story of one homeowner’s nightmare when his sewer lateral finally “had enough.” The bottom line is that water infrastructure concerns aren’t just limited to our drinking water systems, and we can’t forget the importance our sewer systems play — the safety and well-being of our communities depends on it!