Oct. 2000
Editorial Screed

Sewers and Water. Troublous subjects.
Centralized sewers mean the disposal of human waste via public systems which may someday expand to fill the known universe. Water is a vital natural resource with zero growth potential since The Flood. Add the enormous expense of "sewering" and, as surely as night follows day, public discussion of Sewers and Water will be conducted at daggers drawn.

There was a time when ordinary, peace-loving taxpayers were content to entrust public water and sewer decisions to the combination of elected officials/regulatory bodies/sanitary engineering firms (all Developerfolk, historically) in the belief that "they know what's best for us."
You don't hear that too much anymore.

Pipe In, Pipe Out

The word "sewer" comes from the Old English "seaward."
The seas were, down through the centuries, giant wastewater treatment plants. Ditches, streams, and later pipes, carried all manner of human filth to rivers which discharged into the Big Pond.
Read around at History of Sewers, if you dare (note: send children out of the room).
Here in the U.S., a Congressional ban on ocean dumping did not take effect until 1993.

"The first waterworks in the United States was installed in Philadelphia in 1802. By 1860 there were 136 systems in the U.S., and by 1880 the number was up to 598. The convenience of a constant water supply stimulated the adoption of residential water fixtures--baths and kitchen sinks as well as flush toilets--dramatically increasing the per capita use of water on average from three to five gallons per person per day to 30 and even 100 gallons per person per day.

By the middle of the 19th century, the diseases spawned by the convenience of running water and the flush toilet gave rise to a demand for the construction of sewers that would carry the sewage not only out of and away from the home, but away from the city as well.

This demand entailed the evolution of the ditch-type storm sewer into the closed-pipe water-carriage system of sewerage. The wastewater itself was in this system the medium of transportation, so a large and regular supply of water was a built-in requirement to keep the wastes moving in the pipes (Today, efforts to conserve water by promoting the use of low-flush toilets--1.6 gallons vs. five to seven gallons--have led to plugging of sewers engineered for a minimum hydraulic flow of five gallons per flush. To deal with this problem, owners of these "water-conserving" toilets have been instructed to flush two or three times per use.)" [From Civilization and Sludge]

No, this is not meant to suggest a return to Jack and Jill water-fetching or to the filthy, diseased waste-swamps of yesteryear. It is meant to suggest that the "pipe it away and dump it" paradigm of wastewater management, prevalent for the last 100 years, is far from rational or scientific. It represents the 100-year-old sanitary engineering tradition of designing lucrative public works projects instead of developing fiscally reasonable, socially responsible, environmentally benign methods of decentralized wastewater management.

The Sewer Biz

"...the greatest force behind the drive to sewer has been the interests of industry: first, because public sewers are the cheapest place for industries to put their wastes, and second, because it is the enormously expensive system of central collection that generates the highest profits for engineering and construction firms. For example, 80% of the total cost of sewering and treatment is in the laying of pipes, and engineering and construction firms get a flat 20% of the total project cost."

"Fixing the 5-10% of septic systems that are failing (i.e., polluting or overflowing) would never generate the profits associated with sewering 100% of these communities' central collection and treatment works." [From Civilization and Sludge]

After WWII, the U.S. government began serious promotion and subsidizing of sewer projects in towns and villages across the nation. Sewers came to symbolize economic progress and public health. Over the last 50+ years, countless U.S. towns large and small have built public sewer systems. Many smaller municipalities may not have forseen the extent to which their sewer systems would cost them dear, almost immediately and in perpetuity, on many levels. Still - it was and is considered the price of public health and economic progress, a price which taxpayers in densely populated areas gladly bear.

Add to this a widespread conviction on the part of environmental groups that treatment at the "end of the pipe" is the surest way of cleaning up polluted water. The environmental movement in the United States played a large part in creating the pressure that resulted in the Clean Water Act of 1977.
This Act was effectively a sewering act.
Enormous sums of money were allocated exclusively for the laying of sewer pipes and the construction of treatment plants.

The Clean Water Act funded virtually no on-site, site specific, decentralized systems--either for remediation or for new construction.

Troubled Public Waters

Without doubt, sewers are essential for high-density commercial and residential development.
No going back. Sewer pipelines beget more sewer pipelines.

So it is that a good deal of "municipal growth" strategy centers on an indelicate fact: the human waste from all the bathrooms in all those future buildings has to go somewhere.

And the water to power a zillion flushes has to come from somewhere.

Judging by the concern for safe, ample public water supplies as part of their "master development" planning, state governments have begun to acknowledge that water is a finite resource.

At times this is less of a concern to governments in localities ambitious for development.

For instance, it presently appears that every elected politician in Sussex County abominates New Jersey's master development plan. It is viewed as an attack on Home Rule - and as an unfair implication that county officials are not conscientious about Water.

Meanwhile, as a result of nationwide droughts and water contamination scandals, U.S. policymakers are now a bit more attentive to the effects of water scarcity and the importance of protecting watersheds.

Some Water Facts Tend To Inspire Fears

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control currently estimates that nearly one million Americans fall ill every year because of polluted drinking water systems.

In recent decades, the public has become re-acquainted with the dangers of water-borne diseases. (e.g. hepatitis, giardia, crytospiridium) which often originate from "sewer system problems."

In 1993, in one single incident, 400,000 people in Milwaukee fell ill to one water-borne organism, cryptospiridium, and 100 died from it.

Despite the Safe Drinking Water Act's 1974 mandate for water companies to conform to monitoring procedures and maximum contaminant levels, water in many U.S towns and cities still contains dangerous microbes as well as known and potential carcinogens from a wide variety of sources. Between 1992 and 1994, according to EPA records, 35 million Americans drank from water systems (including several systems in Vernon NJ) that violated EPA standards; 80 million drank from systems (including several systems in Vernon NJ) that persistently violated reporting rules.

Fears Close To Home

Around the same time that the above EPA report was published , over 1000 residents of Greenwood Lake NY fell ill (giardiasis) as a result of drinking contaminated water from their town's water well. A new filtration system was eventually purchased and installed at great expense.

In 1999, A sewer leak in Warwick NY caused the worst outbreak of water-borne illness in the history of Orange County . Residents in two Warwick Township communities (Wickham Knolls and Wickham Village) were sickened by drinking water which was contaminated when a sewer pipe leaked e. coli-infected raw sewage into their wells. A breakdown of the system's chlorination pumps further abetted the contamination.

Technology alone cannot guarantee the safety of the public water supply, as demonstrated by the 1993 fatal outbreak of cryptospiridium in Milwaukee, where the water system included disinfection and filtration. At present, chlorine-resistant fecal pathogens are a major challenge to water/wastewater treatment experts nationwide.

Increasingly, the major challenge to NJ municipalities has been the enormous expense of remediating (or totally rebuilding) faulty sewer systems.
In our area, the multimillion-dollar sewer system in Sussex Borough operated less than ten years before it had to be shut down and replaced by an entirely new and different system. As one SussexBoro councilman said, the Boro's first sewer system was "a lemon."

Facts, Not Fear in Vernon!

Sewer construction represents Vernon Township's promise to support commercial growth and high-density development . The Town Council is most certainly correct in saying that the voters elected them to fearlessly carry out that promise. (It might be added that no one seems particularly concerned about monitoring the progress of the MTBE plume which has contaminated the water downtown for over a decade. Why bother about a carcinogen that will only zip around in the local aquifer for 5 million years?)

Vernon Township faces a more compelling fact: the flushometers of an anticipated 1,613 housing units and retail establishments at Mountain Creek alone will require huge additional quantities of local groundwater.

That water, plus the water for future Town Center residential/commercial developments, plus the current water already coursing through the existing sewer pipeline, may someday constitute a very large volume of groundwater taken out of Vernon's water supply never to return.

The township has contracted for a $100,000 study to determine the feasibility of pouring treated wastewater into ponds in the McAfee/Black Creek vicinity.

Evidently, part of the suggested pond-site property is owned by the developer of Crystal Springs II.

Engineers at Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority (SCMUA) expect the study to take 90 days.

McAfee residents do not appear to be enthused by the prospect of treated wastewater ponds in the vicinity of 400 household wells. Township officials, plus SCMUA representatives and the township's engineering consultant, discussed the proposal at a Town Council meeting held (and, by all accounts, conducted at daggers drawn) on Oct. 17 at the Pleasant Valley Lakes Clubhouse, McAfee. At that meeting, township officials repeated their oft-heard appeal for decisionmaking based on Facts, Not Fear.

Mayor John Logan assured the people that he would not approve anything that would "compromise" the drinking water in McAfee. A representative of SCMUA assured McAfee residents of his belief that the treated wastewater in the ponds would be of drinking water quality. Some at the meeting were not persuaded by these assurances, and others were not persuaded of any benefit to McAfee residents should sewer construction (occasioned by the planning for IntraWest/Mountain Creek resort villages and for Rt.94/515 Vernon Town Center development) be undertaken at taxpayer expense.

From The Trust for Public Land:

"The emergence of a holistic approach to overall watershed management and a recognition of the impossibly high costs and limitations of technological fixes have led many planners, water system managers, community leaders, and the EPA itself to reconsider a principle that was taken for granted a century ago-the public's water supply should be reasonably clean to begin with. The corollary of this principle is that both point and non-point source pollution must be kept to a minimum in the most sensitive portions of the watersheds that supply drinking water-wetlands, feeder streams, and buffer zones that overlie aquifer recharge zones or adjoin surface sources such as lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Much work remains to re-orient the mindset of water system officials and regulatory agencies to embrace the principle of source protection, to create funding sources for conservation of watershed lands, and to assist agencies in acquiring conservation easements over priority areas of their watersheds."

See also:

The Decentralized Concept Of Wastewater Management (challenges the "conventional wisdom" that centralized wastewater systems are the obviously superior method of management)

Wastewater Treatment by Michael K. Stenstrom, Civil & Environmental Engineering, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA (scroll down to the excellent diagrams on his page)

Thirty Years of Industrial Wastewater Treatment (voice of the pollution engineering industry)

Civilization and Sludge btw, what does SCMUA do with sludge? For another time...

History of Sewers featuring the sewers of London - not for the faint of heart



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