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Can better water infrastructure help protect public health amid virus outbreaks?


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In this series of posts, Riverkeeper compiles the available information – and unanswered questions – on the possible risks the COVID-19 virus may pose via sewage-contaminated water.

New York is at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s urgent that we stay focused on preventing transmission through the known routes – interpersonal contact and contact with surfaces contaminated with the COVID-19 virus.

At the same time, Riverkeeper is actively studying the available information on the risks the COVID-19 virus may pose to individuals or communities via sewage-contaminated water. Riverkeeper recognizes that our organization is not expert in epidemiology or infectious diseases. Click the links below to explore this topic further.

Q. Are there ways to protect the Hudson and those who enjoy it from the COVID-19 virus and other pathogens in sewage?

A. Sewage treatment, and the people employed to run treatment plants, act as important often unsung protectors of public health. Shoring up and modernizing our sewage infrastructure to minimize leaks and overflows are important ways to protect the public from exposure to pathogens in sewage, including potentially the COVID-19 virus.

Riverkeeper’s data show that most evidence of fecal indicator bacteria contamination does not come directly from sewage treatment plants, but from sewer leaks and overflows, stormwater runoff, contaminated sediment, and other sources, including wildlife. When sewage treatment is thorough and plants are running according to their permits, they typically do the job we expect, thanks to the people who are employed to operate these plants.

The pandemic and society’s response to it has highlighted the many essential workers in our society that often go unsung. These include people who operate and maintain wastewater and drinking water treatment plants and pipes, as well as people tasked with drinking water source protection for New York City and other drinking water supplies. Guidance provided by the Water Environment Federation, a trade group for wastewater professionals, suggests that COVID-19 does not pose a significant new risk to wastewater treatment plant workers, because the same precautions typically employed to avoid exposure to pathogens in sewage should be protective. Riverkeeper is grateful for the hard work of these professionals at the front line of environmental protection, particularly during this pandemic.

Sewage treatment protects public health. Nearly 350 million gallons of treated sewage is discharged into the Hudson River or its tributaries every day, including from 44 treatment plants that discharge directly to the Hudson River Estuary or the tidal portion of its tributaries. The money we invest dictates the degree to which our public sewers effectively carry waste from our homes and businesses to treatment plants, and the degree to which our treatment plants effectively treat that waste.

Since 2017, more than $1 billion was committed to improving wastewater infrastructure in the Hudson River and its tributaries, by local, state and federal governments. These landmark investments are possible thanks to acts by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, which have made possible the state’s largest investments in clean water in a generation, including the Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017. New York State legislators joined Governor Andrew Cuomo in providing $500 million for the Clean Water Infrastructure in the budget approved in April 2020, and have proposed millions more as part of the $3 billion Restore Mother Nature bond act that will go before voters for approval in November. Lawmakers in Washington have begun talking about as much as $25 billion for water infrastructure as part of a second round of pandemic relief.

Still, much work remains to be done. Our pipes and treatment plants are old – in many cases beyond their useful life. Most of the sewer systems responsible for handling the largest volumes of sewage rely on pipes that are, on average, 70 years old or older. Several river cities rely on pipes that are, on average, over 100 years old. One in four of the treatment plants in the estuary watershed is at risk of flooding, sea-level rise or both, and about 10% of the treatment plants that discharge to the estuary are averaging at or above 75% capacity.

In addition to the ongoing discharge of treated sewage that is not disinfected, sewage overflows are a widespread problem, particularly in the Hudson River Watershed. Combined sewer overflows release raw sewage during rain in the Capital District, New York City and several river cities, including Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Kingston, Hudson and Yonkers. While tens of millions of dollars are being invested in long-term control plans to reduce the volume and frequency of discharges from combined sewer overflows, every significant rainfall results in discharges of sewage to the Hudson River Watershed, with the most affected areas including New York City, the Capital District and the Mohawk River.

These overflows of raw sewage are completely untreated in most cases. Nationwide, the hoarding of toilet paper has exacerbated another chronic problem – the flushing of personal wipes, napkins and other paper products that clog pipes, rather than break down like toilet paper. These clogs, and others like them caused by fats, oils and grease or other clogging agents, often trigger backups and overflows of sewage. Like combined sewer overflows, these discharges are typically not disinfected. You can do your part by refusing to flush anything but the three “Ps” – Pee, Poo and toilet Paper. Nothing else should go down the drain. For more on this subject, follow the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District on Twitter (@neorsd) which has offered to answer any “is it flushable” questions.

In March, as New York became the center of the global COVID-19 pandemic, there have been sewage overflows reported in parts of the Hudson River Watershed on two-thirds of days (21 of 31 days). Communities in the Hudson River reporting overflows include:

• New York City
• Albany, Troy, Rensselaer and Green Island in the Capital District
• Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Kingston, Hudson and Tappan in the Hudson River Estuary
• Hudson Falls, Fort Edward, Glens Falls and Schuylerville in the Upper Hudson
• Yorkville in the Mohawk River

Communities in the Hudson River Estuary and its tributaries have identified $571 million in needs for wastewater infrastructure investments. Communities in the Mohawk River and Upper Hudson watersheds have identified an additional $561 million in projects. The needs in New York City will be measured in the tens of billions.

Bottom line: Investing in wastewater treatment plants and pipes will protect us from future outbreaks. State and federal grants and loans must be sustained and increased to meet the need.


Is COVID-19 virus present in water?

Is recreation along the Hudson still safe? Assessing the risk from the COVID-19 virus

Will Riverkeeper gather water quality data during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Can disinfection in sewage treatment help protect against COVID-19 risks?

Is public drinking water at risk from the COVID-19 virus?

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