There’s One Surefire Way to End Big Sewage Spills: End Big Sewage

By Chelsea Wald, an award-winning science and environmental journalist based in the Netherlands, author of “Pipe Dreams: The Urgent Global Quest to Transform the Toilet.” Originally published at Undark.

Call it the summer of sewage.

In July, Los Angeles’ Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, the city’s largest municipal wastewater treatment facility, spilled 17 million gallons of raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay after an unexpected surge of debris overwhelmed the plant, resulting in beach closures during the height of beach season. Weeks later, The Los Angeles Times revealed that the still-damaged plant was continuing to release partially-treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean.

Earlier in the month, England’s Southern Water, a privatized utility, was fined 90 million pounds (roughly $125 million) for intentionally releasing untreated sewage between 2010 and 2015, apparently in order to save money. And The New York Times reported on the growing, climate-change-exacerbated problem of sewer overflows in Chicago, where backups disproportionately burden poor, non-White communities.

The takeaway from reports like these is often that more investment and regulation are needed to prevent sewage spills, be they a result of accident, negligence, or plain old bad behavior. That’s true.

But there’s only one surefire way to end big sewage spills, and that’s to end big sewage.

Modern urban wastewater infrastructure started with the Victorians, who in the 19th century confronted the messy consequences of piping water to homes and businesses for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and, above all, toilet flushing. In London, this used water washed haphazardly out of homes into cesspools, streets, and ditches, fueling disease outbreaks and ultimately polluting the River Thames. When that became untenable, the city built a remarkable comprehensive system of sewers to pump all the wastewater downriver.

In the early 20th century, British engineers invented a microbe-driven wastewater treatment process to clean the sewage before releasing the effluent, but it wasn’t until the second half of the century that most high-income cities implemented the technology in large-scale treatment plants. (Unfortunately, many middle- and low-income cities worldwide lack these systems, leaving huge quantities of sewage untreated.)

The public health and environmental gains from the successful centralized management of sewage have been remarkable. But massive, centralized facilities make for massive, centralized catastrophes — and the risk of public health and ecological disasters.

One way to reduce the impact of sewage spills is to reduce the amount of sewage available to spill, but conservation can only go so far in the face of urban growth. According to a 2020 paper in the journal Natural Resources Forum, global wastewater production was set to increase 24 percent by 2030 and 51 percent by 2050. In the United States, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2017 that 56 million new users would need to be connected to centralized wastewater treatment systems over the following two decades.

Cities can also incorporate more green infrastructure, such as green roofs and bioswales to absorb stormwater and reduce the load on wastewater systems. Constructed wetlands can also mitigate pollution from sewer overflows. Massive underground reservoirs can hold storm flows until plants have capacity to handle them again.

But as governments allocate new infrastructure investments — such as those in the bipartisan infrastructure plan currently working its way through the U.S. Congress — they should also reconsider whether it even makes sense to expand centralized wastewater treatment in the future. Large, centralized systems can benefit from economies of scale, but that scale may itself be a liability in the face of climate change and other threats such as terrorism.

One problem is that centralized treatment plants tend to be located in low-lying areas, to take advantage of gravity, and near bodies of water, to release their effluent. So storm surges and flooding can easily bring them down — and sometimes it takes weeks to get them working again. Drought also affects their operations: Too little water can cause a sewage flow to stagnate, and thirsty tree roots can penetrate underground pipes in search of a drink. What’s more, if power goes out, pumping stations and wastewater treatment plants can go offline too. And since centralized systems are practically invisible to users, people just keep showering and flushing even during announced failures, when the wastewater they’re creating will just flow directly out to rivers, lakes, and the sea. (And, anyway, what choice do they really have?)

Instead, sewage should go local. New residential and commercial developments, in particular, can take advantage of innovations for buildings and neighborhoods that allow wastewater to be recycled for immediate use, its nutrients and energy used onsite. In my reporting on sanitation and the environment, I’ve come across increasing numbers of such projects, many of them pilot-scale, ranging from high- to low-tech.

In Portland, Oregon, a luxury residential and commercial complex with 657 housing units received a nearly $1.5 million refund from the city for incorporating an off-grid system in order to avoid further straining the city’s century-old sewers. A series of tanks, filters, and constructed wetlands, which takes pride of place on the main plaza, recycles the community’s wastewater for cooling, irrigation, and toilet flushing, reducing water use by more than 50 percent. (In an emergency, the complex can discharge to the city’s sanitary sewer.) Solid residue gets taken offsite for reuse as fertilizer and energy.

When it comes to urban infrastructure, it’s “probably the largest and most advanced on-site wastewater treatment facility in the United States,” says sustainability consultant Lynn Broaddus, an advocate for distributed water infrastructure who is currently the president of the Water Environment Federation, an association of water quality professionals.

In Europe, a multi-country European Union-funded research project, Run4Life — Recovery and Utilization of Nutrients for Low Impact Fertilizer — is optimizing a more radical modular treatment concept that processes waste from water-efficient vacuum toilets and food grinders to produce biogas fuel and nutrients for fertilizer. Other wastewater, collected separately, can be cleaned, mined for heat, and then reused.

Local systems such as these can — depending on the circumstances — use less energy and emit less greenhouse gas than centralized ones. Some can be installed in a corner of a parking garage, or feed lush greenhouse gardens. They can create local, green jobs.

On a city scale, a network of distributed systems, or a combination of centralized and distributed systems would be less concentrated in flood zones, could have more built-in redundancies, and would be more nimble in recovery. That would make it more resilient to extreme weather events and other shocks like the surge in Los Angeles.

Finally, distributed systems can make wastewater management more flexible and modular, allowing them to shrink and grow with cities and making them additionally “future-proof.”

If this approach sounds strange, consider that there’s a trend to localize almost every other type of infrastructure system, from agriculture to energy grids. Local sewage makes sense, too, for many of the same reasons. While more research and pilot projects will be helpful in both evaluating and raising awareness of decentralized systems, the shift also requires a change in incentives and regulations, which in most places currently favor traditional, centralized approaches.

To be sure, distributed systems could and would at times fail like centralized ones do. They would also need investment, maintenance, and regulation like centralized systems. But small-scale facilities embedded in communities would be more visible to their users than big sewage treatment plants on the outskirts of town, meaning that people would be more likely to make the connection between their water use and pollution. Community members could also spot failures more quickly and demand accountability.

And then they could go swim at the beach.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Ian Perkins

    Phosphorus in waste water, both domestic and agricultural, also needs looking at. “Humans excrete some 3.3 million tons of phosphorus annually,” of which little is captured and recycled, instead making its way to the oceans, from where Earth’s natural processes take forever to bring it back to land. However, “Approximately 80 percent of mined phosphate rock used in food production does not even lead to consumed food. The element is leached from farm fields and lost in food manufacturing.”
    “The domestic wastewater industry has enormous potential,” Mavinic says, “but boy, oh, boy, it’s nothing compared with the agricultural industry.”
    Quotes taken from Sewage Industry Fights Phosphorus Pollution

    1. Samuel Conner

      I have the impression that mineral phosphates are being depleted. Recapture might be necessary

      Fertile soil is not an unlimited resource, either.

      In the interest of preserving soil fertility, it may eventually become necessary to “close the nutrient loop” and return the “outputs” we humans produce to the soil that produced our food inputs.

      But that would require that the outputs not become contaminated with toxins in the course of its treatment prior to being returned to the soil. I don’t see how one avoids contamination with current large scale sewage treatment systems.

      I suspect that eventually there will be no alternative to on-site processing and local re-use.

    2. Eric L Anderson

      We engineers say, “The solution to pollution is dilution” Individual septic systems are preferred, small scale means small and visible failures.

      1. juno mas

        Where did you get your wastewater engineering degree? Dilution is not the solution; pollution source control is. Individual septic systems have been shown to be major groundwater polluters (nitrates). Small scale septic systems fail regularly and the owners fail to take immediate remedial action.

        There are recent improvements in micro-sizing water treatment machinery, but it still requires trained, skillful people to operate and monitor. Most new real estate developments (commercial or residential) don’t want to implement them, because they would rather pay a small “development fee” to connect to central treatment plants. (Treatment plants that are funded through “average cost” taxation and not the marginal cost of expensive plant expansion which would be born by the newcomers, not prior residents.)

        1. Mesoscale

          That’s what I was told while I was in school, although I called bs on the notion back then as an obvious industry-friendly aphorism. Source control is the obvious better choice. Dilution used as a last resort.

          I do take a bit of an issue with the article suggesting that storm runoff is typically treated in waste treatment plants. I don’t think storm runoff is treated as it would quickly overrun treatment facilities that have been designed to deal with a planned volume of domestic waste water. In Los Angeles country, for instance, stormwater is diverted to the ocean via the county’s infamous aqua ducts. The “Drains to Ocean” note cast into storm sewer manhole covers and stenciled on curbs is a reminder of this fact not to pour you motor oil down the storm sewer. Perhaps there is a certain percentage of storm water runoff that infiltrates into wastewater treatment system, I don’t know for sure.

          On the idea of where stuff drains to, most humans are completely ignorant of the basic workings of their environment beyond knowing where there is a drive through. I worked in southern California (L.A. and Orange country) doing environmental science work, mostly sample collection because I was just getting started out of school. There was a lot of ground water sample collection, often from monitoring wells located in the middle of a road, usually there because of leaking gas station underground storage tanks. People would lean out the window in stopped traffic to ask what we were doing and I would tell them I was collecting water samples. People generally had no idea there is water in the ground. Later I would tell them we were collecting endangered groundwater fish which they would always fall for. Another project I had was setting up and collecting waste water compositors at various industrial sites to evaluate the nature of the effluent to determine if their wastewater was within “spec” for their wastewater permit. The experience was encountering “dilution is the solution to pollution” in practice. I always thought this was a half assed approach after seeing first hand what was actually being “diluted”. I’ve never had a problem understanding externalities. It’s clearly a business tactic that is baked into the regulatory structure.

        2. chris

          And one could say the same to you…”dilution is the solution to pollution” is a common engineering phrase. But like you point out, that’s not a good option in many cases. Developers are eager to offload the responsibility of the problems they create without paying the real costs of dealing with the problem.

          Of course, what Eric said above also points to failures in small scale systems that have the potential to accommodate point sources in a sewage system. And we hear today that both Jim Clyburn and Joe Manchin are aligned in cutting back funding for our national infrastructure overhaul.

          So how about this? You’re both right. And you’re both wrong. Because we’ve decided that whatever solution we implement at whatever scale will be underfunded and mismanaged.

          USA USA USA :/

          1. Mesoscale

            Chris, I reserve judgement. So much can be done to manage what goes into the waste stream before it ever has to be managed in the waste stream. I do have my reservations about small scale systems lacking both the private funding and local expertise necessary to keep them running in perpetuity. Where I live now we have an archipelago of villages each with their own small scale power and some with small scale sewer. Failures are frequent because of basic preventative maintenance and misoperation. There is regional management, but the work happens locally. It’s obvious that some mix of large scale and small scale utilities is the way, but public management is probably the best approach since what are you going to do if the private just can’t pay. The very best solutions are passive biological solutions if they can be achieved such as reclaiming and creating wetlands for storm water and flood control, and perhaps solar, local scale hydro and local wind for power, but of course the issue of pollution and utilities goes far beyond these basic areas.

            1. chris

              Not sure where you’re talking about specifically. In the US, we have people that can’t even recycle properly. They don’t even understand how to read the recycling symbol and what the numbers mean. They don’t understand the basics of maintenance because most of our life is disposable. And yet, we’re talking about bringing these critical infrastructure components to smaller scales? Relying on people to understand maintenance is required and that it should be paid for? How’d that work out for the condo association at Surfside?

              What will happen in the US if we go with distributed controls and infrastructure is a vast pillaging of the commons. Those that can do what they need for themselves will. Those that can’t, will receive no help. And then we’ll see the same challenges they’re facing in Georgia with hook worm go national.

      2. Hayek's Heelbiter

        In the mid-1970s, my wife was working at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. I got to know one of the of the chemistry professors there, Bill Cheek, who passed away in 2018.

        Fom his obituary, “Several recordings of his songs were produced with the Arthur Smith Music group and he performed on one of the Arthur Smith TV Shows.”

        One tune he wrote, recorded and released in 1975 was entitled “The Solution to Pollution Ain’t Dilution Any More.” I still have a copy somewhere in the archives.

        So obviously scientists have know for nearly half a century that the solution to pollution ain’t dilution any more.

  2. Sam F

    1. None of these problems are related to the scale of sewage processing.
    2. Smaller plants would be local and more subject to local funding shortages.
    3. Do not confuse surface-water systems with sewage: surface drains to do not enter sewage systems.
    4. Sewage plants are large because they need trained operators and specialized equipment.
    5. The same amount of spills would occur with smaller plants without adequate design and oversight.
    6. Fancy treatments are more expensive and likely only in high-income areas.

    1. drsteve0

      You probably know more about sewage systems than I do, my experience limited to a rural childhood and having literally built my own septic tank and drainfield (well buried) in the South Georgia swamp boonies where I now reside. Believe it or not there are no local building codes outside the municipalities here. But I feel compelled to push back a bit.

      #1 – really, none?
      #2 – (there’s an obvious joke here) Probably the biggest hurdle to smaller more distributed systems would be NIMBYism. People won’t even tolerate a windmill for God’s sake. Also developers would rather connect to the county or municipal system and fob off the cost to taxpayers.
      #3 – Some systems don’t do a perfect job of this (at least in the past) and it can be a problem esp. during high rainfall events. I know that little nugget of minutia cause my dad worked at P,B,Q &T, an engineering firm. He frequently talked about it.
      #4 – If you replace ‘because’ with ‘and’ this might make more sense. Most sewage systems are large because they process a helluva lot of sewage.
      #5 – OK, but probably more smaller spills with more systems.
      #6 – Gated communities are always gonna wanna pump their sewage (out of sight of course) across the tracks. NIMBYism again.

      I grew up on a dirt road off of a dirt road (in Cobb Co. GA believe it or not) and attended a rural school (had all twelve grades) that had its own sewage treatment facility, the main feature of which was an aeration pond of about an acre, big ‘fountain’ in the middle. Our principal’s first name was Emmett, so we called it Lake Emmett, local treatment can certainly be done.

      A few years ago got roped into going to a country music and horse show a local farmer in No. Alabama hosts each year that lasts several days. A thousand or more people (probably more), mostly suburbanites. One evening a group of teenagers had waded into a small pond and were having a good natured mud fight. They were covered up in it. From a safe distance I asked if they realized they were playing in a sewage containment pond. I know, I’m a buzz killer. But the looks on their faces, first disbelief, then sheer horror, priceless.

      1. d w

        i suspect the first point is this

        if what ever happened to over whelm the large plant, would also over whelm the smaller ones. they just might be in different places

        the third point would mean that having so many sewage facilities, would also increase the number of points of failure

        the fifth one just would be that multiple points of failure would take longer to fix, and take longer. plus it might cover a larger area, since the source of the sewage is every where

        a septic tank is for useable for one home. and they back up at the drop of hat, and thats the most minor problem. as i recall from when i was living in house that had one

      2. chris

        The biggest hurdle to these kinds of projects are that they’re no longer utilities. They’re individual installations that will need to be supported by organizations that don’t have the same interests as a utility. What happens when the development gets a bill for the system overhaul in 20 years? On the other side, what happens when all of the wealthy have their optimized local utility and infrastructure options, and the poor are left with connections to an aging system that hasn’t been maintained?

        The concept of these kinds of local projects is great. But we need vast differences in how our society works to make them feasible.

        1. Sue inSoCal

          No, they aren’t utilities, and they are left to a sort of honor system. Living on a Pacific NW island, I found it amazing that failing drain fields were everywhere and there was zero oversight, even though the Sound was awful from them. 30 year septic systems/drain fields were failing that folks simply didn’t want to replace. Tis expensive. The neighbor’s failing stinking drain field was on an easement on my property. That property bordered a protected salmon run and wetlands. The drain field was 30+ years old and definitely needed relocated, and these neighbors were hardly hurting for money. I moved about the time I was ready to call the city or county and get serious. (This is the action that’s commonly taken.)

          The point is, none of these drain fields has any structured oversight while there was constant whining about the health of the Sound.

    2. J.

      Do not confuse surface-water systems with sewage: surface drains to do not enter sewage systems.

      This is unfortunately not true in older American cities. For many the street runoff and the sewage go through the same pipes.

      1. chris

        Correct. Many municipalities have combined sewerage systems. That’s a problem because they can overflow due to sewage or storm water concerns.

    1. d w

      sort of reminds of the 1990s, when the US down graded it was water standards and that worked out so well, can you say Flint MI?

  3. Petter

    In the Oslo region where I live, the Oslofjord is heavily polluted but according to reports, not as badly as in the past. Still, every time there is a heavy downpour, raw sewage is released into the fjord. This happened again this summer and people were warned not to swim in the areas affected. But raw sewage is not the only pollution source as the report below discusses.
    The Oslo Fjord is the country’s most used outdoor area. The possibilities for activities are virtually unlimited.

    With regard to the pollution situation in the Oslo Fjord over the past 25 years, the development has mainly been positive. Parts of the wastewater network have been renewed and large treatment plants have been built where the wastewater from the municipalities undergoes far-reaching treatment. The overflow volumes are significantly reduced, and the large overflows are discharged into deep water. Such overflows now only occur in particularly heavy rainfall situations.

    The purification measures in the inner Oslofjord have changed the fjord’s water chemistry. The condition assessed on the basis of the phosphorus and ammonium concentrations in the fjord’s surface during the winter has clearly improved since the 1970s. However, there is no significant change for the other nitrogen compounds, but the trend is positive.

    The central location of the Oslo Fjord means that there are many possible sources of pollution. In addition to discharges from sewage networks and treatment plants, the fjord is supplied with pollution from agriculture, industry, precipitation (directly on the sea surface) and from boat traffic on the fjord.

    The latest calculations of the inputs (source: Technical Council report no. 84) show that about 76 tonnes of phosphorus and about 3,000 tonnes of nitrogen are released into the fjord annually. The figures are based on measurements made in rivers and at the treatment plants as well as calculated inputs downstream of the measuring stations.

  4. The Historian

    Hooray for this story! It is time we started talking about sewage systems. And yes, they should be small, if for no other reason than it would remind us of what we need to survive. Too often things like sewage treatment is taken for granted or just ‘out of site, out of mind’.

    Sewage treatment should not be just a poor people’s problem – after all we all create it – and we should understand how important it is to us.

  5. Appleseed

    I became a supporter of John Todd after first reading about the group he and his wife Nancy formed with Bill McLarney, the New Alchemists, in Stewart Brand’s CoEvolutionary Quarterly in the late 70s. John is a pioneer in what he terms ecological design that links a series of human-constructed environments with “natural” systems to accomplish multiple tasks: wastewater treatment, food production, aesthetic enhancement. Look no further for proofs of concept at a variety of scales. This video gives a good overview of the man’s philosophy and his work that holds such promise for tackling the issues identified in the article.

    1. chuck roast

      I saw one of John Todd’s “living machines” in Providence many years ago. It was very impressive. Such small scale solutions are easy on O&M and would probably not be subject to surprise surges.

      The problem with “soft solutions” is the socially embedded apparatus that prefers hard solutions, and view large scale employment of such infrastructure as both a nuisance and a threat. Think of the traffic engineer when he is told to ‘study’ lane removal or street closing. The Bohannan Hustons of the world are not set up for soft and simple.

    2. Thistlebreath

      I keep trying to get Stewie to chug a bottle of Fukushima water. Odd, he won’t reply. He’s a reactionary to the bone, LongNow, yada yada and all. There’s a Stanford master’s essay about his somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun politics.

      John ‘n Nancy were/are huge promoters of using sailing craft to introduce new species to various places to cure problems they’ve chosen. When I asked them about rats, mongoose (s) and Hawaii’s long gone ground nesting birds, they turned their backs on me and found other, more interesting people with whom to talk.

      Sand Hill Rd. visionaries.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I looked up Sand Hill Road and found it to be a road in the Silicon Valley area which is supposed to symbolize something about Silicon Valley money-raising and start-upping and etc. culture.

        Sometimes we have to be picky-choosy about what we accept and apply and what we reject from some peoples’s pile of thinking and work.

        I like a lot of what I saw in the Whole Earth Catalogs and the CoEvolution Quarterly/ Whole Earth Review. At some point Brand decided to become a Silicon Huckster and believer in his own
        smarter-than-everybody legend. That has lead to some output I don’t like and won’t ingest into my thinking.

        Likewise, some of the work the Todds did seems interesting, even as the concept of introducing species from here to there often deserves rejection, especially with nasty species in nice places, like rats, cats, mongooses and brown tree snakes on the Islands of Flightless Birds.

  6. Stanley Dundee

    The use of potable water to remove human waste is likely an unsustainable practice at root. So maybe we should be encouraging the use of systems that don’t strain precious water resources, of which humanure comes immediately to mind. No doubt other options are also available.

    1. Felix_47

      I lived in an RV for four years. I got tired of dumping the thing and I thought it was ridiculous to be dumping into a tank that was going to be diluted eventually with drinking water. Especially since I was in a very dry place. So I built a urine separation toilet and the urine, which I guess has a lot of phosphorus etc I diluted 75-25 with water for my garden which included shower water and the tomatoes and bean seemed to thrive. I heard that soap was a problem but I did not worry about it and no one died from eating the vegetables. The hard solids I threw into the compost pile which I spread over the garden in the fall. I don’t know if any of it was right but I suspect that is the strategy. When people visited there was an initial ugh factor but once they understood it they got used to it. So overall it I would say the urine separation toilet with cat litter or sand to cover the other part works really well and better than a flush system. I have no idea why it has not caught on especially in places like India which seem to be overflowing with excretions. Of course if we don’t get some movement towards population control none of it will matter.

  7. redleg

    Two examples given, one a public system that experienced debris (I’ll bet “flushable wipes” played a part), and the second a privatized system.
    Privatized public works is a problem, with maintenance funds transferred shareholders instead of being used for actual maintenance projects. When something does wrong, these systems get bailed out by the public. Sound familiar?

    Putting that aside, it’s clear to me that the author has never worked on or at a wastewater utility. Lift stations and wastewater treatment facilitates have backup generators, either fixed or portable, in case of power failure. Most places in the US have separate storm drain and sanitary sewage pipe systems. The large sewer clogs I’ve seen are related to fat, “flushable” wipes, and things that shouldn’t be flushed at all (sheets, trousers, towels, etc.), which is more about abuse of the sewage system than operation of that system. Even things like sheets in the pipes can be mitigated by “muffin muncher” grinders, which are expensive but do the job, when problem areas are identified. But they didn’t get there by themselves. How does something like trousers get there at all- how do you flush that?
    I could go on, but typing on a phone isn’t something I like doing.
    If humans are going to live in cities, having centralized public sewage treatment systems is the most cost- and resource- effective way to go, and the single biggest advance in public health in human history. The author should focus on the household waste reduction (and convince people to stop dumping cooking oil down the sink) before considering redoing regional systems.

    1. SepticSkeptic

      ^Hear, hear (and I could add ‘here here’ – as I’ve lived in both septic areas and those with central sewerage – septics are almost always worse.)
      The idea that the solution is just having smaller and more treatment is a fantasy – as anyone who’s actually seen both septic tanks and local treatment (many many failures) and larger municipal plants in operation.
      There ARE scale advantages of having larger plants – better equipment, trained staff, testing, removing and reusing the solids properly, you name it. (That doesn’t mean those scale advantages are infinite, but they exist). The fact that there are SOME smaller-scale facilities that are good doesn’t disprove the point that there really are advantages to scale.
      And on storm sewers being separate from the sewerage proper: they should be separate and in many/most places are designed to be. (The fact that this isn’t true everywhere doesn’t disprove the point that this is considered the ‘standard’ wherever feasible). As I understand in many places the issue is that the storm facilities can get overloaded – and tend to get overloaded with extreme weather events and as surface run-off increases (more dense construction with little regard for the impact on keeping ground absorption capacity – or in simple terms, pave everything and there’s no ground left to absorb water).

      1. JTMcPhee

        Such a big subject.

        Combined sewer systems carry house poop, storm water exacerbated by paving and destruction of wetlands/groundwater recharge public assets, and industrial pollution. Latter is supposed to be regulated by permit but should never have been allowed as the worst kind of externality.

        Massive secondary and tertiary treatment systems are huge boondoggles with corruption and waste built in, some are trophies for congresspeople “bringing home the bacon” for their districts..

        Industrial toxins from industrial plants, household chemicals and stuff like pesticides and fertilizer and even pet poop surface runoff render “night soil” as used in many places as fertilizer, too toxic for that purpose. Concentrated animal feed operations are a huge source of pollution that by reg capture has escaped most restrictions. Sunk cost fallacy ties us to the “traditional” big-pipe-big-plant model — lots of rice bowls created there.

        Boaters, a tiny fraction of the population, are often singled out as “worst polluters” for the waste that the ones without holding tanks (that get pumped out in most cases to municipal wastewater sewers) while combined sewer outflows discharge millions of gallons of un- or part treated waste into boating waters. Many RV owners and boat owners, and also people with cabins and such that don’t “perc,” use composting toilets. Which do require occasional “yuk” of dealing with the composted waste (which carries excreted stuff like antibiotics and other medicines that should not enter the biosphere, and other manufactured chemicals. These toilets do require individual commitment to do the right thing. They cost up to several thousand dollars though can be built from a sheet of 3/4” plywood and a 5 gallon bucket and a toilet seat. The trouble with humans is most of us are lazy and made to be ignorant of their connection to the biosphere.

        Don’t see 8 or 9 billion humans being likely do much about this set of problems, when one can just drop their drawers and excrete without a care in the world, until the pipes back up and project brown floaters and yellow water back into their comfy castles or low-bid condos and apartment complexes.

  8. Michael

    From turds to tap (unfair I know)
    Pump it into a reservoir to mix and then feed it into the system.

    Pure Water San Diego

    Purified Water San Diego is the City of San Diego’s phased, multi-year program that will provide more than 40% of San Diego’s water supply locally by the end of 2035. The Pure Water San Diego Program will use proven water purification technology to clean recycled water to produce safe, high-quality drinking water. The Program offers a cost-effective investment for San Diego’s water needs and will provide a reliable, sustainable water supply.
    Phase 1 Projects

    Phase 1 includes several projects that will clean recycled water to produce 30 million gallons per day of high-quality purified water, reducing the City of San Diego’s dependence on imported water.

  9. Synoia

    The worst polluters are probably in the “Developing Countries” with large populations.

    I’d start with the likes of India, Nigeria, Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines..

  10. Darius

    Publicly owned treatment works are tightly regulated under the Clean Water Act. On-site treatment systems are not unless they are pretreatment systems connected to the public sewer or have a point of discharge to jurisdictional. Polluted runoff from a constructed pond or wetland probably is nonregulated nonpoint source pollution. Leaching to groundwater also is unregulated.

  11. upstater

    In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, New Orleans raw sewage was dumped for many days. File this under fragility and climate. Totally unforeseeable that the region would lose power and back up generators might fail…

    S&WB generators fail at wastewater treatment plant, forcing discharge into river

    The Sewerage & Water Board was forced to dump untreated sewage in the Mississippi River and Bayou Bienvenue after backup generators that had been supplying power during the post-Hurricane Ida blackout went down.

    The wastewater system is also facing significant challenges at its lift stations, which are needed to pump the water from the pipes to the treatment plant. The S&WB lost power to all 84 of those stations during Ida.

  12. Darrell

    Why rooftop sewage vents are not generally required to have raincaps is stupid. Every one of those vertical rooftop pipes that allow air to enter a sewer pipe and prevents a vacuum, also catches whatever rain fall there is and diverts the sewer plant.

    In addition, that rain causes cast iron pipe to rust and birds and rodents often climb into the sewer pipe, or birds drop things into them that clog pipes.

  13. drumlin woodchuckles

    The toilet has already been transformed. The only reason that grant-funded toilet transformation projects try to drop the Cone Of Silence over it is because if its existence were acknowledged, the grants would stop and the “toilet transformation projectmembers” would have to get a job and work for a living.

    Here is the homesite for the home inventor who has already transformed the toilet and the human-waste-handling-system.

    Maybe a reason that ordinary people don’t want to adopt it ( though some already have) is that mainstream normies don’t want to have to handle their own waste. ( “I PAY people for that!”).

    The Humanure Handbook is how to do the toilet part.
    The Compost Toilet Handbook is about how to do the community-scale toilet-product-and-additional-materials composting part. Mr. Jenkins has done successful projects scattered around the Third World to the great pleasure of the particular groups of people who use the projects and enjoy the results. It is discussed in the book. No NGO or the UN or any UN body will ever support this or acknowledge its existence. Because if they did, they would have to quit their bullshit careers and go work for a living.

    Mr. Jenkins is finding the First World a tougher nut to crack. But he keeps trying.

    If I had a real house of my very own, I would use this method. Until society was ready for me to use the clean bio-sanitary product in my garden, I would either have to flush it down the flush toilet ( at still a considerable water-savings than if I used the flush toilet itself and flushed after every use) or otherwise I could set up a burn barrel and incinerate the product so I could use the ash in my garden. Surely society would tolerate that.

    Mr. Jenkins’s big break will come when sea level rise has irreversibly destroyed sewage systems for two hundred million coastal Americans. When they are truly left with utterly nowhere else to turn, they will finally adopt Mr. Jenkins’s methods.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      ( I wish I had written that very last sentence differently. I wish I had written . . . ” When they are truly left with utterly nowhere else to go” . . .etc.)

      1. T_Reg

        I hope many people read your comment, It’s something people should know. I feel the same way about rainwater catchment systems. I discovered the Humanure Handbook years ago, and I live in a house on 1/3 of an acre, yet I still haven’t implemented the idea, mainly because, living in a city, I’d have to do it in secret, and would probably still end up in jail. But at least I’m ready for the collapse of society in that small way.

        You might consider using the output to fertilize a garden for wildlife, until attitudes and laws change. Your last sentence: :).

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          You could less-than-fully implement the humanure idea by setting up all your systems to produce the primary humanure product, and once the humanure-harvest toilet was full with a whole batchload of humanure, you could flush that batchload down the flush toilet in several sub-batches. Doing that would still use a whole lot less water than using the flush toilet several times a day in the normal manner. And would keep you on the right side of the law.
          And on the right side of busybully neighbors, to whom you could truthfully demonstrate what you are doing as a water conservation measure, because all the humanure eventually gets flushed.

          And it just now occurs to me that if you make compost out of the humanure, you probably reduce its volume some, meaning even less water use than otherwise when you get to the legal flushing stage.

          And when society collapses to the point that not enough government exists any more to enforce the ” flush toilet” laws and ordinances, then you can use the primary humanure product to produce finished humanure-based compost for garden use.

    2. JTMcPhee

      We GIs used “burn barrels” in Vietnam. Latrine seats had a half of a 55gal drum under each throne, a flap at the back of the structure would lift up so GIs could use a steel rod about 3ft long to jerk the barrels out behind, then add diesel fuel and a wick of paper to get it burning. The stench permeated the area, and unless you used a LOT of diesel fuel, you would not get “ash,” just a half-cooked mass of toilet paper and poop which would just be dumped in a hole or in lots of cases, into one of the many canals and streams. Another gift to the Vietnamese people, along with Agent Orange and its cousins… God, America is Great! (Tm)

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