A plague of combined sewers

The major typhoid and cholera epidemics of the US, and the plague of the Al Qaeda camps, 2009 are understood to have been caused by bad sewage, in particular by the practice of combining sanitary + storm sewage. Medieval plagues too may have been caused by combined sewers.

Combined sewer system showing an rain-induced overflow, a CSO.

A combined sewer system showing an rain-induced overflow, a CSO.

A combined system is shows at right. Part of the problem is that the outfall is hard to contain, so they tend to spew sewage into the lakes and drinking water as shown. They are also more prone to back up during rain storms; separated systems can back up too, but far less often. When combined sewers back up, turds and other infected material flows into home basements. In a previous post, “follow the feces,” I showed the path that Oakland county’s combined sewers outfalls take when they drain (every other week) into Lake St. Clair just upstream of the water intake, and I detailed why, every few years we back up sewage into basements. I’d like to now talk a bit more about financial cost and what I’d like to do.

The combined sewer system shown above includes a small weir dam. During dry periods and small rain events, the dam keeps the sewage from the lake by redirecting it to the treatment plant. This protects the lakes so that sometimes the beaches are open, but there’s an operation cost: we end up treating a lot of rain water as if it were sewage. During larger rains, the dam overflows. This protects our basements (usually) but it does so at the expense of the drinking water, and of the water in Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.

As a way to protect our lakes somewhat Oakland county has added a retention facility, the George W. Kuhn. This facility includes the weir shown above and a huge tank for sewage overflows. During dry periods, the weir holds back the flow of toilet and sink water so that it will flow down the pipe (collector) to the treatment plant in Detroit, and so it does not flow into the lake. Treatment in Detroit is expensive, but nonpolluting. During somewhat bigger rains the weir overflows to the holding tank. It is only during yet-bigger rains (currently every other week) that the mixture of rain and toilet sewage overwhelms the tank and is sent to the river and lake. The mess this makes of the lake is shown in the video following. During really big rains, like those of August 2014, the mixed sewage backs up in the pipes, and flows back into our basements. With either discharge, we run the risk of plague: Typhoid, Cholera, Legionnaires…

Some water-borne plagues are worse than others. With some plagues, you can have a carrier, a person who can infect many others without becoming deathly sick him or herself. Typhoid Mary was a famous carrier of the 1920s. She infected (and killed) hundreds in New York without herself becoming sick. A more recent drinking water plague, showed up in Milwaukee 25 years ago. Some 400,000 people were infected, and 70 or so died. Milwaukee disinfected its drinking water with chlorine and a bacteria that entered the system was chlorine tolerant. Milwaukee switched to ozone disinfection but Detroit still uses chlorine.

Combined sewers require much larger sewage treatment plants than you’d need for just sanitary sewage. Detroit’s plant is huge and its size will need to be doubled to meet new, stricter standards unless we bite the bullet and separate our sewage. Our current system doesn’t usually meet even the current, lower standards. The plant overflows and operation cost are high since you have to treat lots of rainwater. These operation costs will keep getter higher as pollution laws get tougher.

In Oakland county, MI we’ve started to build more and more big tanks to hold back and redirect the water so it doesn’t overwhelm the sewage plants. The GWK tank occupies 1 1/2 miles by about 100 feet beneath a golf course. It’s overwhelmed every other week. Just think of the tank you’d need to hold the water from 4″ of rain on 900 square mile area (Oakland county is 900 square miles). Oakland’s politicians seem happy to spend money on these tanks because it creates jobs and graft and because it suggests that something is being done. They blame politics when rain overwhelms the tank. I say it’s time to end the farce and separate our sewers. My preference is to separate the sewers through the use of French drains or bio-swales, and through the use of weir dams. I’m running for drain commissioner. Here’s something I’ve written on the chemistry of sewage, and on the joy of dams.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, July 1-Sept 16, 2016.

7 thoughts on “A plague of combined sewers

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  4. M. Botchite

    I hope you are sincere regarding this problem. You’re absence of proper research indicates otherwise. Threatening plagues on the community is a scare tactic and irresponsible. Promising a solution with French drains is unrealistic at this point. I agree we have issues with our water system and we need a good, practical solution but it’s going to be a bit more involved than digging a French drain. I look forward to your article discussing the expenditures, engineering, and time frame of closing the storm sewers- including the reconstructions of city blocks to accommodate bioswales, county-wide road closures and reconstruction, private property/easement acquisitions, active utility relocations, etc. Please include consideration for only 9 months of work per year and appropriate weather related shutdowns. This work is to be performed on a constantly operational and expanding sewer system, across multiple large municipalities. Thank you.

  5. M. Botchite

    You sound like a presumptuous idiot. It is alarming that someone so misinformed and undereducated would seek to oversee critical infrastructure without comprehending it.

    1. R.E. Buxbaum Post author

      I do sound that way, I’ll admit. On the other hand, my area of the state of Michigan dumps near-raw sewage every other week upstream of the water intake. It’s something we have to fix, just as many other towns have fixed it, or are getting ready to. We’re not unique here. It’s just a real problem.

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