Is There Raw Sewage In Our Waterways?

By Erin Delmore

When flash floods drench Scotch Plains or pummel Mountainside it does more than stop traffic — it wreaks havoc on sewer systems.

“Raw sewage can carry pathogens and viruses that can make people sick: ear infections, gastrointestinal disease. I mean, we were just hearing about this with the upcoming Olympics in Brazil. That’s the exact same thing we’re talking about here,” said Debbie Mans, NY/NJ Baykeeper.

Much of New Jersey relies on century-old infrastructure called combined sewer overflow, or CSO. Those are metal and concrete pipelines that run under our roads, homes and businesses. When it rains, water enters CSOs through storm drains. It combines with unsanitary waste that’s headed to a treatment plant, but the extra water overwhelms the system and sends a mixture — raw sewage included — into places where people swim, boat and fish.

There are 217 outfall pipes in New Jersey, and through them more than 23 billion gallons of raw sewage and other pollutants that flow into New Jersey’s bays and rivers every year.

When asked if he thinks it’s something people know about Chris Strum, Sr. Director of State Policy at NJ Future, said, “Usually when I tell people about it, they’re shocked. They’re like, really? In the United States? In New Jersey? So no, I don’t think it’s something, but they do notice it smells funny after a rain storm.”

NY/NJ Baykeeper and Hackensack Riverkeeper sued the state – and won. The DEP issued individual permits to 25 cities and utilities that operate combined sewer systems. Public notification is required. Operators have three to five years to come up with detailed plans for upgrades.

“This is a generational challenge for these cities. For many of these cities, this will be the biggest public works expenditure they will have over the next couple of decades, but at the same time it’s really an opportunity to invest in their infrastructure in a way that makes them grow stronger if they learn from other cities across the country,” said Strum.

One place that’s introducing new technology: Camden. Through building new parks and rain gardens, the city’s capturing storm water where it falls and beautifying neighborhoods.

We took a tour of North Jersey’s waterways through the Arthur Kill between Staten Island and New Jersey, up Newark Bay for a glimpse of Bayonne and into the lower Passaic River, between Harrison and Newark.

“We’re on the Passaic River and you can see the beautiful new waterfront park. These cities their strength is their waterways, and so it’s our hope that through this permitting process they’re going to reconnect themselves to the waterways and to cleaner water,” said Strum.

The first steps toward cleaner water are quick and easy: keep litter out of the streets, so it doesn’t overload storm drains, and to conserve water. The less that goes down the drain, the less that has to be treated…especially during rainstorms.