Climate change brings a perfect storm of raw sewage and rainfall in cities that can least afford it

Author

Kyle Bagenstose

Kevin Crowe

Source(s)
USA Today - Gannet Co. Inc.

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Stretched beyond their lifespans by overdevelopment and population growth, these so-called combined sewer systems altogether spilled 850 billion gallons of raw sewage into the open waters in 2004 alone, the last time the federal government estimated it. Rife with feces, pathogens, debris and toxic pollutants, their discharges pose a risk to both human health and the environment.

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USA TODAY spent a year investigating how climate change is exacerbating overflows, parsing through national rainfall data and reports of spilled sewage in dozens of states and cities. It found that, across the board, communities saddled with these systems now face harder and more frequent rainfalls that can lead to even more toxic spills.

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Among the investigation’s findings:

  • Most combined sewer systems exist in the same regions inundated with climate-driven rainfall extremes – the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast. An analysis by USA TODAY shows that 97% of cities with combined sewers have experienced an uptick in both annual precipitation and extreme rainfall over the past 30 years.

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As a part of that effort, the EPA turned its focus to combined sewers in the early 1990s, pressuring communities to upgrade their systems and reduce the number of discharges. Those reductions often aimed to limit discharges from several dozen a year to no more than five. 

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