Posts Tagged ‘combined sewer overflow’

I was talking about Blog Action Day with my family at dinner the other night, and mentioned that I had oodles of ideas about this year’s topic, “Water”, but wasn’t sure how to narrow it down.  My eight-year-old daughter suggested that I write about kids that have to walk thousands of miles to go to the wells to get their water each day.  True enough, there are about 1 billion people in the world that don’t have ready access to clean and healthy drinking water.  They’re probably not walking thousands of miles, but it probably feels that way to them.

It’s hard to imagine life without running water.  I can imagine having to pump water from a backyard well, but the thought of having to haul water back and forth each day is a stretch.  Last summer our power went out three times.  The longest was three days.  It was easy living without lights, the computer, and the oven.  Life without refrigeration for those days was difficult, but even more difficult was life without water.  I felt grimey from no shower.  I had clothes that needed washing.  I wanted warm water to wash my face, and running water to rinse off my toothbrush.  And let’s not forget the water for flushing.

Today let’s focus on why we should care.  When most Americans can still get water from their water utility, even if the power is out, why should we care if we conserve water or not?  How does what we do affect the water supply for people elsewhere?  We’ll briefly look at a variety of issues, mostly just to get you thinking, although I’d be glad to write more on these issues later.

Three percent of the water on the planet is freshwater, but only about 1% of the water is useable to us.  Some is trapped in icecaps and glaciers, and some is in places underground that we can’t access.

I live in Indiana. Here are the top issues that immediately come to mind in my state:


Constructed Wetland at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College, Photo by Goshen College

Indiana used to be covered with about 24% wetlands.  Now we are down to about 3.5% wetland cover.  Why?  The wetlands were drained, starting in the 1800’s for farming and development.  At the time, it was considered wasteland.  Now we know better.

Wetlands provide a natural means of flood control.  Wetlands are able to hold runoff (rain that cannot be absorbed into the ground during a storm).  The water sits in the wetland and slowly percolates through the soil, getting cleaned up along the way.

Wetlands are a natural filtration system.  Wetlands clean our water for free!  That’s called an ecosystem service (the job of nature that benefits us, and doesn’t cost us a penny).  The wetland filtration system works so well, that many people and businesses have started using constructed wetlands complete with wetland plants that will clean the waste water from a home or organization before it is either reused or returned to the water system.  It’s my understanding that these are becoming quite popular in LaGrange County, Indiana.

Wetlands provide an important ecosystem for our wildlife.  One third of Indiana’s endangered plants and animals are from a wetland ecosystem.

Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO)

Think about that term for a minute…What might we be combining?  Hmmmm? Some of you may have guessed it.  Human waste with our rivers.  How delightful!  When cities originally made their sewer plans a hundred or so years ago, the cities were much smaller, and there was far less runoff.  Runoff comes in greater quantities from hard, nonporous surfaces like paved roads, parking lots, and big roofs.  They did plan sewers for the extreme event that should there be a heavy rain, the sewers would not back up into people’s homes and the streets.  Generally street drains and homes will run the waste water through the sewage treatment plant.  In the event of a heavy rainfall, the sewage treatment plant cannot handle the inflow, so there is an extra pipe that drains directly into the riverways during a “heavy” rain.  And by heavy, I mean a quarter of an inch for some cities, like mine.  That means anytime it rains kind of hard that human feces is floating down the river.  That doesn’t sound too healthy to me.  Cities are supposed to take care of their CSO’s and make plans to fix them, but it costs millions of dollars to do so, and no one is getting penalized for not fixing them.

Ditches and Drains

We are an agricultural state.  We have lots of drainage ditches through the agricultural land.  The drains wouldn’t necessarily be so bad, except that they lead into the river.  Many of these drains have been straightened, which makes them flow faster.  A faster flow means more silt and sediment.  The number one pollutant in Indiana isn’t oil or heavy metals, it’s sediment.  Why is this a problem?  It makes the water murky which keeps plants from photosynthesizing, which messes with the whole rest of the food chain.


This is an issue that I am still learning about.  But here are some thoughts to ponder:  Who owns our water?  If water falls on your land, does it belong it to you? (In some places, even in the U.S., it is illegal to collect your rainwater), Should the government take care of our water?  Can private organizations own our water and distribute it back to us?  Can they sell our local water to folks far, far away?  I HIGHLY recommend the movie, Blue Gold.  It explains very clearly some of the water privatization issues in the U.S. and around the globe.

Water Footprint

Where does the water you use each day come from?  Think beyond your shower.  Where did the juice you drink originate?  How much irrigation was needed for your cotton t-shirt?  How much water was needed to make the plastic bottle that you use?  How much water was needed to raise the beef for your hamburger.

The piece that I had never really thought much about is how water moves around the globe.  For example, most of the applejuice that you buy anymore comes from China.  The apples are grown in China, then the juice gets shipped back to the U.S.  In a country that has a water shortage issue, it seems strange to ship the water from one ecosystem to another.  Another piece that I have recently discovered is that water should stay where it is.  If we ship water to places that have a severe water shortage, that water will essentially be lost from the original ecosystem’s water cycle.

One of the very worst American trends is bottled water.  As long as our water is safe to drink, we should be drinking water from the tap.  It takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter that we can actually buy, not to mention the waste from the plastic bottle it came in.  If you do one thing to make a change today, go buy yourself a reusable metal bottle, and start filling up from your sink.  Most bottled water is municipal water anyway.

What the heck is big mouth Jenny going to do about her water consumption?

This is what I’m going to do.  I’m giving up Diet Coke (and all sodas).  I have an issue with drinking too much of it.

Based on a study by Coca-Cola in the Netherlands, the total water footprint for a .5 liter bottle of Diet Coke is 35.41 liters of water to produce.  Some of that, 0.41 L is used in the manufacturing process, most of which can be reused.  Twenty-eight liters is used in the production stage (growing sugar beets, carmel coloring, CO2), about 22.4 liters is green and blue water (water from the soil and surface water).  The part that concerns me most is the 11.41 liters that is used to clean the water pollution created during the process of making the Coca-Cola and the bottle that it came in.

Coca-Cola is making its way toward sustainable business practices, and working to reduce their footprint.  I’ll give them some kudos for that.  However, after seeing these numbers, and knowing the state of our world’s water supply, I think it’s time for me to ditch the Cola habit and try to increase my local water consumption.

What are you going to do?

Are you going to find out what watershed you live in?  Start carrying your reusable water bottle?  Cut your shower down by one or two minutes?  Stop dumping toxic chemicals into your lawn?

I want to hear your ideas.

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