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Surfrider Launches Series on Wastewater Infrastructure Failures

A day at the beach should never result in illness. Yet sadly, aging sewers and wastewater infrastructure across the country are overwhelmed and failing under stress caused by decades of neglect and growing populations and urban development. The resulting discharges of untreated sewage into coastal waters puts public health at risk. Sinus infections, ear infections, stomach upset and even life-threatening viruses can all be transmitted by recreating in polluted water. Sea level rise and more frequent and severe coastal storms associated with climate change will only make matters worse- unless we make some big changes. 

In an effort to help educate communities, homeowners and decision makers about how sewage pollution gets to the beach and to inspire action to stop pollution at the source, Surfrider developed a series of awareness building resources. For instance, as a society, when we flush our toilets, we rarely think about where that water ends up, and what happens to it before it gets released back into the environment. As part of Surfrider’s Stop Sewage Pollution Campaign, this series aims to help people better realize that our actions upstream can and do significantly impact water quality and coastal resources at the coast. 


The series includes a six-part blog, wastewater failure animations, in-depth articles and a short-form video (above)- aiming to appeal to the masses while providing follow up information for those interested in taking a deeper dive. Solutions range from expanded and more inclusive beach water quality testing, to practices at home to prevent clogged pipes and ensure proper maintenance of wastewater systems, to advocacy recommendations and campaigns at the local, state and federal levels. Of particular note are Surfrider’s volunteer-run beach water quality testing program, Blue Water Task Force, which consists of over 50 labs testing nearly 500 beach and recreational sampling sites across the coastal United States, and Surfrider's priority federal campaign to protect clean water through funding critical EPA programs.

Blog Series: Part 1- How do cesspools pollute coastal watersheds?

The #1 water quality problem in areas serviced by individual wastewater systems like cesspools is nitrogen contamination of fresh and marine waters. Cesspools are basically lined pits in the ground that receive household wastewater. As the effluent percolates out of the cesspool and down through the ground beneath, pathogens and some phosphorous is removed.  The wastewater that eventually reaches the groundwater however is typically heavily polluted with nitrogen. Nitrogen-laded groundwater then flows downstream towards surface waters like lakes and streams, and ultimately the ocean where it can completely disrupt ecosystems and cause harmful algae blooms, fish kills and other destructive impacts. During stormwater events cesspools can also leach pathogens into flood waters putting public health at risk as well.

Graphic 1. Access this cesspool animation on vimeo, static versions of the graphic as well as draft social content here, and a thorough article on cesspools here.

Blog Series: Part 2. How do sewage spills and failures pollute coastal watersheds?

With some cities having sewers that are over 100 years old, we have failed to properly maintain our pipes, pumping stations and other sewage infrastructure. These systems remain out of sight and out of mind until obvious and stinky problems show up. Over the years build up, breaks, cracks and corrosion of pipes, lids and other parts of the wastewater infrastructure allow rain and stormwater to infiltrate in and totally overwhelm the system causing overflows of untreated sewage into local waterways.  

Graphic 2. Access this sewer animation on vimeo, static versions of the graphic as well as draft social content here, and a thorough article on sewers here.

Blog Series: Part 3- How do septic systems pollute coastal watersheds?

Conventional septic systems consist of a septic tank that allows the solids to separate from the liquids. Within the septic tank, bacteria digest the sewage sludge that settles on the bottom. The liquid effluent then flows into either a leaching pool or drainfield, and the effluent slowly leaches out into the surrounding ground  where it percolates through the soil until it joins groundwater and eventually surface water flows. Similar to cesspools, septic systems are responsible for contaminating ground and surface waters with nitrogen pollution, and put public health at risk during stormwater events by leaching pathogens into flood waters. 

Graphic 3. Access version of this septic system graphic as well as draft social content here, and a thorough article on conventional septic systems here and advanced septic systems here.

Blog Series: Part 4- How do combined sewer overages (CSO’s) pollute coastal watersheds?

Combined sewer systems collect both sewage and stormwater through the same network of pipes and carry it to a sewage treatment plant. In theory this may seem like a good idea because both sewage and stormwater are treated before disposal, unlike separate sewer systems that treat sewage only. Over the last century, however, both population growth and increased development in urban areas have contributed to greater flows of sewage and stormwater that exceed the capacity of combined sewer systems.  As a result, overages occur that discharges under-treated and raw sewage into the environment, even with moderate or low rainfall accumulations in some cities. 

Graphic 4. Access this combined sewer system graphic as well as draft social content here, and a thorough article on combined sewer overages here.

Blog Series: Part 5- Climate change further burdens our already failing wastewater infrastructure

Global warming, sea level rise and shrinking beaches are all serious impacts of climate change that coastal communities are becoming more and more familiar with. People living along the coast are also already dealing with the consequences of changing weather patterns like the increased intensity and frequency of strong, slow moving, coastal storms and flooding. These changing conditions put increasing pressures on our wastewater sewage infrastructure causing more sewage spills, failures and threats to public health.

Graphics 5 & 6. Access these graphics here, and a thorough article on wastewater system failures in dry weather and increasingly wet weather as a result of climate change here.

Blog Series: Part 6- Personal actions to stop sewage pollution in your community

Regardless of the type of sewage infrastructure (cesspool, septic, sewer) that services your community, there are many actions we can all take to better care of our wastewater systems and prevent sewage from reaching the beach. This includes:

  • Only flush the three P's
  • Don’t pour cooking grease or oils down the drain
  • Conserve water inside your home
  • Soak up the rain and reduce runoff
  • Practice good septic & cesspool care
  • Use your voice to influence better wastewater policies

Access a thorough article on personal actions we can all take to stop sewage pollution here.

Learn more on our Stop Sewage Pollution page.