Excerpts from: As Sewers Fill, Waste Poisons Waterways
By CHARLES DUHIGG
…at Owls Head, a swimming pool’s worth of sewage and wastewater was soon rushing in every second. Warning horns began to blare. A little after 1 a.m., with a harder rain falling, Owls Head reached its capacity and workers started shutting the intake gates. That caused a rising tide throughout Brooklyn’s sewers, and untreated feces and industrial waste started spilling from emergency relief valves into the Upper New York Bay and Gowanus Canal.
“It happens anytime you get a hard rainfall,” said Bob Connaughton, one the plant’s engineers. “Sometimes all it takes is 20 minutes of rain, and you’ve got overflows across Brooklyn.”
…In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.
…As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches. There is no national record-keeping of how many illnesses are caused by sewage spills. But academic research suggests that as many as 20 million people each year become ill from drinking water containing bacteria and other pathogens that are often spread by untreated waste
. …Around New York City, samples collected at dozens of beaches or piers have detected the types of bacteria and other pollutants tied to sewage overflows. Though the city’s drinking water comes from upstate reservoirs, environmentalists say untreated excrement and other waste in the city’s waterways pose serious health risks.
A Deluge of Sewage
…When a sewage system overflows or a treatment plant dumps untreated waste, it is often breaking the law.
Today, sewage systems are the nation’s most frequent violators of the Clean Water Act. More than a third of all sewer systems — including those in San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Jose and San Francisco — have violated environmental laws since 2006, according to a Times analysis of E.P.A. data.
…Thousands of other sewage systems operated by smaller cities, colleges, mobile home parks and companies have also broken the law. But few of the violators are ever punished.
But widespread problems still remain.
“The E.P.A. would rather look the other way than crack down on cities, since punishing municipalities can cause political problems,” said Craig Michaels of Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. “But without enforcement and fines, this problem will never end.”
Plant operators and regulators, for their part, say that fines would simply divert money from stretched budgets and that they are doing the best they can with aging systems and overwhelmed pipes.
New York, for example, was one of the first major cities to build a large sewer system, starting construction in 1849. Many of those pipes — constructed of hand-laid brick and ceramic tiles — are still used. Today, the city’s 7,400 miles of sewer pipes operate almost entirely by gravity, unlike in other cities that use large pumps. New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, which handle 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater a day, have been flooded with thousands of pickles (after a factory dumped its stock), vast flows of discarded chicken heads and large pieces of lumber.
When a toilet flushes in the West Village in Manhattan, the waste runs north six miles through gradually descending pipes to a plant at 137th Street, where it is mixed with so-called biological digesters that consume dangerous pathogens. The wastewater is then mixed with chlorine and sent into the Hudson River.
But New York’s system — like those in hundreds of others cities — combines rainwater runoff with sewage. Over the last three decades, as thousands of acres of trees, bushes and other vegetation in New York have been paved over, the land’s ability to absorb rain has declined significantly. When treatment plants are swamped, the excess spills from 490 overflow pipes throughout the city’s five boroughs.
…New York’s sewage system overflows essentially every other time it rains. … in hundreds of places, sewer systems remain out of compliance with that framework or the Clean Water Act, which regulates most pollution discharges to waterways. And the burdens on sewer systems are growing as cities become larger and, in some areas, rainstorms become more frequent and fierce.
New York’s system, for instance, was designed to accommodate a so-called five-year storm — a rainfall so extreme that it is expected to occur, on average, only twice a decade. But in 2007 alone, the city experienced three 25-year storms, according to city officials — storms so strong they would be expected only four times each century.
“When you get five inches of rain in 30 minutes, it’s like Thanksgiving Day traffic on a two-lane bridge in the sewer pipes,” said James Roberts, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Hypoxia and the Gulf of Mexico
Hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico is defined as a concentration of dissolved oxygen less than 2 mg/L (2 ppm). This figure is based on observational data that fish and shrimp species normally present on the sea floor are not captured in bottom-dragging trawls at oxygen levels < 2mg/L. In other oceans of the world, the upper limit for hypoxia may be as high as 3-5 mg/L. Hypoxia occurs naturally in many of the world’s marine environments, such as fjords, deep basins, open ocean oxygen minimum zones, and oxygen minimum zones associated with western boundary upwelling systems. Hypoxic and anoxic (no oxygen) waters have existed throughout geologic time, but their occurrence in shallow coastal and estuarine areas appears to be increasing as a result of human activities (Diaz and Rosenberg, 1995).
The largest hypoxic zone currently affecting the United States, and the second largest hypoxic zone worldwide, occurs in the northern Gulf of Mexico adjacent to the Mississippi River on the Louisiana/Texas continental shelf. The maximum areal extent of this hypoxic zone was measured at 22,000 km2 during the summer of 2002; this is approximately the same size as the state of Massachusetts. The average size of the hypoxic zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico over the past five years (2004-2008) is about 17,000 km2, the size of Lake Ontario.
For comparison, the entire surface area of the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries measures about 11,000 km2.
Hawaii’s famed white sandy beaches are shrinking
By AUDREY McAVOY (AP) –
Nov 14, 2009 KAILUA, Hawaii —
Jenn Boneza remembers when the white sandy beach near the boat ramp in her hometown was wide enough for people to build sand castles. “It really used to be a beautiful beach,” said the 35-year-old mother of two. “And now when you look at it, it’s gone.” What’s happening to portions of the beach in Kailua — a sunny coastal suburb of Honolulu where President Barack Obama spent his last two family vacations in the islands — is being repeated around the Hawaiian Islands.
Geologists say more than 70 percent of Kauai’s beaches are eroding while Oahu has lost a quarter of its sandy shoreline. They warn the problem is only likely to get significantly worse in coming decades as global warming causes sea levels to rise more rapidly. “It will probably have occurred to a scale that we will have only been able to save a few places and maintain beaches, and the rest are kind of a write-off,” said Dolan Eversole, a coastal geologist with the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant program.
The loss of so many beaches is an alarming prospect for Hawaii on many levels. Many tourists come to Hawaii precisely because they want to lounge on and walk along its soft sandy shoreline.
These visitors spend some $11.4 billion each year, making tourism the state’s largest employer. Disappearing sands would also wreak havoc on the environment as many animals and plants would lose important habitats. The Hawaiian monk seal, an endangered species, gives birth and nurses pups on beaches.
The green sea turtle, a threatened species, lays eggs in the sand. Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii geology professor, says scientists in Hawaii haven’t yet observed an accelerated rate of sea level rise due to global warming. Instead, the erosion the islands are experiencing now is caused by several factors including a steady historical climb in sea levels that likely dates back to the 19th century. Other causes include storms and human actions like the construction of seawalls, jetties, and the dredging of stream mouths. Each of these human actions disrupts the natural flow of sand.
But a more rapid rise in sea levels, caused by global warming, is expected to contribute to erosion in Hawaii within decades. In 100 years, sea levels are likely to be at least 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, higher than they are now, pushing the ocean inland along coastal areas. Fletcher says between 60 to 80 percent of the nation’s shoreline is chronically eroding. But the problem is felt particularly acutely in Hawaii because the economy and lifestyle are so dependent on healthy beaches.
The state is doing everything it can to keep the sand in Waikiki, for example, joining with hotels in the state’s tourist hub on a plan to spend between $2 million and $3 million pumping in sand from offshore. Sam Lemmo, administrator of the state’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, says the state would need a variety of adaptation strategies for different beaches. It would likely have to abandon hope for beaches in posh Lanikai and suburban Ewa Beach on Oahu because they’re already lined with seawalls and are badly eroded. The same probably goes for shoreline next to highways or other critical public infrastructure, where seawalls already exist or may have to be built. Seawalls protect individual properties from encroaching waters but they exacerbate erosion nearby by preventing waves from reaching the sand needed to replenish the beach.
For undeveloped shoreline, the state wants to make sure these areas stay pristine. This happened recently when a Florida-based developer announced plans to build luxury homes on sand dunes in Kahuku on Oahu’s North Shore. “We just kind of went nuts, pulled out all the guns on that one, basically got them to back off,” Lemmo said. “We’re working pretty hard to keep any new development away from these areas.”
The University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant program is working with a consultant to develop a beach management plan for Kailua that would address how to deal with a 1 meter rise in sea level. The state hopes this will be the first of many site-specific management plans for Hawaii’s beaches.
A “triage,” strategy could be applied to Kailua, which is lined by multimillion-dollar homes but doesn’t have seawalls. Fletcher proposes identifying areas where a land conservation fund would buy five or six adjoining properties. The state would tear down buildings on these plots and allow the beach to shift inland. He said when erosion hits more sections of Kailua beach, there’s going to be a clamor to put up seawalls. “That will be a very important moment,” Fletcher said. “If we allow the first home to put up a seawall, then we’re probably dooming the entire beach over the course of a couple of decades . . . Ultimately the beach will disappear. Or we could have an alternative to that, to identify now some portions of Kailua shoreline where we want the beach to live.” Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved