New York City’s sewer system, once hailed as a marvel of civil engineering, has not aged well. Today even the slightest amount of rainfall can overwhelm it and send raw, untreated sewage into our waterways and communities. With the frequency and intensity of storms increasing because of climate change, the system is under more stress than ever before.
In spite of these challenges, homeowners like you can play a role in helping to lessen the worst effects of sewage overflows, which can affect regional water quality, which not only helps your community but also the life in our waterways.
Roughly sixty-percent of New York City’s wastewater system is handled by what is called a combined sewer system, which relies on a single sewer tunnel to move wastewater from toilets, sinks, buildings, streets, and storm drains. Under normal circumstances, all the water that enters the New York City sewer system will be treated at a municipal wastewater plant until that water meets the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water standards, at which point it is discharged back into a local waterbody.
An unfortunate reality of combined sewer systems is that they regularly overflow and send untreated sewage into our waterways. While our drinking water is protected from these overflows, the city’s local waters and the aquatic creatures that inhabit them suffer.
One step you can take to help reduce poor water quality is to minimize the amount of water you use at home during heavy rainstorms, which is particularly important during hurricane season when the region may be hit by severe weather.
This could mean avoiding showers, doing laundry, and washing the dishes during and immediately after heavy rains. Consider that washing dishes for 10 minutes with the sink running constantly is the equivalent to using over 40 two-liter soda bottles of water. If you are concerned about minimizing your water use, consider replacing your larger water-using appliances with WaterSense-certified products.
The second thing you can do to help mitigate the worst of sewage overflows is to be mindful of what you send down your drains. For a long time, we have known that pouring grease down drains can clog them. The problem is, sewers are an extension of our drains, and just like your home’s pipes, our sewers can become so overwhelmed by a build-up of grease that they can back up. Sewage backup can be incredibly costly, not to mention a headache to deal with. Instead of washing hot grease down the drain, dispose of it in a non-recyclable can or bottle and throw it out in the trash. Learn more about what New York City and your neighbors are doing to Cease the Grease.
Third, learn about your home’s risk of flooding by visiting FloodHelpNY.org. The Center for NYC Neighborhoods created this free resource in partnership with the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery and New York Rising, to help New Yorkers learn about the risks of flooding in our region. Here you can type in your address to see if your home is in a current or proposed special flood hazard area, and what resources may be available to assist in mitigating your home’s flood risk. This could include a free backwater valve installation for eligible homeowners — which can keep sewage from backing up into your home during storms!
By taking these modest steps, we can not only safeguard our communities but also our waterways.