We must face the raw sewage in our waterways

by Carla Robinson, Editor
Posted 11/29/23

Twelve years ago, the Philadelphia Water Department received accolades for its 25-year plan. But now we find it may not be enough. 

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We must face the raw sewage in our waterways


Twelve years ago, the Philadelphia Water Department received all kinds of accolades – including a 2015 National Planning Excellence Award – when it rolled out its ambitious, 25-year plan for addressing the fact that heavy rains routinely overwhelm the city’s sewage system and dump billions of gallons of raw sewage into our rivers and creeks each year. 

In Philadelphia, this happens because stormwater drains are connected to the sewage lines, so sewage treatment plants get overwhelmed during heavy rains. It’s a problem that means our waterways are unsafe for recreational use almost half the days out of every year. It also results in persistent flooding in East Mt. Airy and Germantown, as well as other parts of the city, and sometimes sends raw sewage backing up into basements. 

Other cities with these “combined” systems have come up with different – and very expensive – solutions. Washington, D.C., for instance, dug a two-mile, 23-foot-wide tunnel under the city to reduce sewage overflows into the Anacostia River.

So yes, the Philadelphia Water Department deserved those awards. Back in 2012, when it came up with the “Green City, Clean Waters” plan, it was a game-changing idea. 

Instead of building expensive concrete holding tanks to increase capacity, Philadelphia sought to create enough green space to allow nature to do its job – use plants to absorb and filter the excess water that was causing sewer treatment plants to overflow during heavy rains. That meant, in all practicality, using lots of homeowner-installed rain barrels and rain gardens to soak up excess rainwater, and permeable surfaces instead of asphalt wherever possible. 

It was an innovative and ambitious decision for a financially-strapped rustbelt city that, like many others, was coping with a sewer and water infrastructure that is hundreds of years old and wasn’t designed for the density of today. Green infrastructure is not only much cheaper than the $10 billion tab for building new tunnels and underground water storage tanks, it could also deliver the recreational and ecological benefits of urban greenspace.

But now we find it may not be enough. 

As Kyle Bagenstose reports in this week’s issue, the city’s water department is not on track to create enough “green” capacity to reach its target goal for excess water absorption. 

And even if it was, that target is changing. Rainfall is increasing faster than the city can keep up. The plan was designed for how rain fell in the years prior to 2006, not for how it falls in 2023 or how it is predicted to fall in 2036 and beyond, as climate change brings more frequent and intense precipitation. In coming years, it is entirely possible that storms could dump so much water on Philadelphia that even if every greenable acre were greened, it still wouldn’t be enough to soak it up. 

In July, PennEnvironment reported that while the plan has accomplished some impressive reductions in sewage overflows, it doesn’t seem to put a big dent in the problem. There are still billions of gallons of sewage overflow being dumped into our rivers and creeks every year. And it isn’t clear that the city can close the gap.

So, what now? What’s plan B?

So far, the city isn’t saying. In response to the PennEnvironment report, it said only that “it is simply not realistic to move the goalposts on a massive, 25-year initiative at the halfway point to dramatically increase the implementation pace or add new projects.” 

It’s true that changing plans mid-stream is difficult, especially when, as PWD correctly argues, the city doesn’t have anything like the resources it would need to keep up with the actual problem.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

With the course we’re on now, it seems likely that come 2036, Philadelphia will still be pumping many billions of gallons of sewage into our waterways and coping with persistent flooding. It will also need another – probably expensive – fix. 

We should note that this is not yet another story about inept city officials who are failing to do their jobs. Rather, this story features bureaucratic heroes who are trying to tackle what could turn out to be an insoluble problem. 

That’s what makes it so hard to watch them choose not to adjust their course. Aside from this being a health hazard, the status quo is quite plainly disgusting. 

At the end of the day, do we want to swim, paddle and fish in what we flush down the toilet, or do we want the clean waterways mandated by federal law?