It’s after dark on a school night, and families gather in the Hawkins Elementary School cafeteria for a pasta dinner hosted by Ironbound Community Corporation. But they’re not just here to eat.
“Tonight we’re going to talk about our sewer system and specifically what combined sewer overflow is. Then we’re going to talk about what the city is doing to solve this problem and get your feedback on it.”
That’s Drew Curtis of ICC is standing in front of a projector displaying statistics about the City of Newark’s Sewer System. Heads nod and comments flow as Drew speaks.
“When it’s dry there’s no problem all out pipes flow out to PVSC, Passaic Valley Sewer Commission, is everyone familiar with PVSC? “
Combined Sewer systems, like the one owned and operated by the city of Newark, collect stormwater, domestic sewage and industrial waste water in the same pipe. Combined Sewage overflow, or CSO, happens when the system gets overwhelmed during high volume periods. Flooding from overflow can make it hard to get to work or school but it’s not just the water residents are worried about.
One of the residents at the meeting expressed concern.
“When there is torrential rain it floods on Horatio Street and we’re very concerned about what is back flowing and the contaminants in the water.”
The excess water is released through 16 outfalls along the Passaic River and Newark Bay, which leads to flooding and pollution.
DC: “Our river’s already polluted from Dioxin, Agent Orange. This just adds to it so while they’re working to clean up the river if they don’t fix the CSO issue our river will still be poisoned.”
The city of Newark has already started researching the problem, tracking overflow events, seeking solutions, and calculating costs.
DC: “So the city had to study and the model a bunch of different alternatives were going to go through right now.”
No single solution is a panacea but each can be implemented to reduce the negative impacts of CSO. The first, making regulator modifications would target the issue by opening and closing gates to control flow. This would have to be a coordinated effort with PVSC. Green infrastructure, a crowd favorite, involves eliminating impervious surfaces to allow for natural stormwater management.
Resident at the meeting:
“Beautification of the area”
DC: “Yeah, trees, bushes, beautification, all of that. How many of us like that? A bunch of us, right!”
Other solutions require more construction and come at a higher cost. Investing in more regular maintenance would ensure the system is working at maximum efficiency. Though increased efficiency is not enough alone. Underground storage tanks could ease overflow by redirecting and holding excess volume during storms.
Costs for this plan range from just over one hundred million dollars to just over 624-million dollars, depending on the amount of storage built. The most expensive option is Sewer Separation. Separation of the whole system is estimated to cost about 972 million dollars. Both these solutions would cause disruptive construction, similar to that of the lead service line replacement Newarkers have already experienced.
DC: “We want to make sure while we’re developing this plan that residents have a say.” With so many options residents have a lot to consider. After the presentation, everyone receives a survey. Families and neighbors deliberate.
Resident: “We have to let our neighbors know that we have to be good stewards of the earth because the environment belongs to all of us. We all have a responsibility to the environment, to make it better for our children.”
The only way to improve a community’s environment is from within the community itself. By including residents in the conversation, change gains momentum. Although solutions the residents and the city are considering will take time, labor, and money, Newarkers can affect change right now. Conservation of water in homes and businesses will lighten the load on the system. Turn off the faucet when brushing your teeth, try taking shorter showers, and avoid running dishwashers and washing machines when it rains.
This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project. It was originally reported by Molly Fichter for WBGO, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.