Sewer Systems

From Beachapedia

By Caroline Gleason
Last Updated: 8/4/21

Introduction to Sewer Systems

The majority of sewage infrastructure in the United States consists of centralized wastewater systems, in which sewage and wastewater from homes, businesses, medical facilities and more is discharged to a network of sewers, and transported to a central wastewater plant for varying levels of treatment. This is in contrast to decentralized wastewater systems, like septic systems and cesspools, which serve individual homes or small communities.

The nation’s wastewater infrastructure has been neglected in recent years, receiving a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2021 infrastructure report card. [1] This neglect has led to a worsening problem of sewage pollution in our ocean and waterways. An understanding of the basic concepts of stormwater and wastewater collection and treatment is necessary in order to help Surfrider activists and other concerned citizens address water pollution problems that result in beach closures, adverse human health effects, and a stressed aquatic environment.

Two Separate Sewer Systems

The first important concept to understand is that in most locations, there are two separate sewer systems -­ a stormwater sewer system and a sanitary sewer collection and treatment system. These systems have distinctly different purposes.

Separate Sewer System.jpg
Figure 1. Separate Sewer Systems. Image courtesy of the City of Alexandria Virginia.

Stormwater Systems

Stormwater systems are designed to prevent flooding problems from rainwater runoff. The systems are composed of gutter drains, open storm water drainage channels and underground storm sewers, and are generally gravity-driven (meaning they don’t use pumps). [2] Water flows by gravity to a low spot, generally to the ocean or nearby waterbody. Civil engineers design these systems to be water superhighways; the goal is to get the rainwater and other urban runoff away from residential, commercial, and industrial areas as fast as possible to prevent flooding, and discharge it to a creek, river, or directly into the ocean. Except in areas with Combined Sewer Systems, the water receives no treatment before it enters the receiving water body, which could include your favorite beach. This means that any water running off streets and gutters, business properties, or your lawn and driveway will end up at the beach, carrying with it animal waste, pesticides, fertilizer, leaked automotive fluids, brake lining residues, general litter, and more.

During periods of dry weather, any water flowing into a gutter or surface drain should be looked at with suspicion. Before humans arrived on the scene with our cities, associated infrastructure, and miles and miles of pavement (called impervious cover), wetlands and undeveloped land allowed rainwater to infiltrate into the soil, providing natural flood prevention. Wetlands even serve as natural filters to remove contaminants from runoff. [3] Before humans and cities, there was no dry weather urban runoff, which describes the near-constant streams of water flowing off paved areas from activities like landscape irrigation, car washing, hosing off sidewalks and driveways, and industrial discharges. Urban runoff provides a dry-weather flow to flush pollutants down to the beach, and because we’ve often built our communities on top of wetlands, paving over the natural ecosystem, there is no natural filter to keep these pollutants out of our waterways, whether it’s raining or not.

So, what can you do to help reduce the load on our stormwater sewers? The most important step is to simply turn off the tap. Use as little water as possible. Don't over-water your lawn or landscape, and if using, adjust your sprinklers to avoid watering the pavement (it won't grow). Consider installing an Ocean Friendly Garden to save more water and further reduce runoff pollution. These gardens use native plants that avoid the need for fertilizer or excess water, and are designed to help capture, collect and filter runoff from your property before it reaches the stormwater drain. Use commercial car washes when possible, as they generally contain and recycle their water, rather than let it run off into a stormwater drain. If you do wash your own car, use as little water as possible and try to divert it to non-paved areas. Use a broom instead of a hose. To keep excess fertilizer (nitrogen and phosphorus, often referred to as “nutrients”) out of the water , pick up your pet waste and avoid the use of chemical fertilizers for your yard or garden. Other commonly used chemicals can also be harmful to aquatic and marine life if they leach into stormwater, so please avoid the use of insecticides and herbicides (weed killers) and fix fluid leaks from your car. Whenever possible, encourage your friends to join you in these practices. Be on the lookout for water flowing down the gutter in dry weather and if you find the source, see if you can educate them on how to use more environmentally-friendly practices.

Sanitary Sewer Collection and Treatment Systems

Sewer Laterals.jpg
Figure 2. Sanitary Sewer Collection Systems. Image courtesy of MMSD Partners for a Cleaner Environment

Sewage collection and treatment systems, also sometimes referred to as sanitary sewer systems, are used to collect and treat wastewater flowing from drains (toilets, sinks, showers, washing machines, and dishwashers) inside residences and businesses. Wastewater travels from households to treatment plants through a series of pipes called sewer lines. The first stretch of sewer line leading from homes and businesses out to the main sewer line is called a sewer lateral (sometimes called a “side sewer”). Local governments often consider all or part of the sewer lateral to be the property and responsibility of the homeowner or business owner.

Like stormwater systems, sewer systems typically make maximum use of gravity to convey wastewater to a treatment facility. Because of this concept of gravity flow, treatment plants are frequently located in low areas next to rivers or the ocean. If wastewater does need to be pumped, the water flows into a concrete pit in the ground called a lift station or pump station, where pumps are used to transfer it through a force main (pressurized sewer) to the treatment plant. [4]

Sanitary sewers are always closed pipes, with vertical connections to sewer manholes situated along the pipe. If there is a failure, such as a blockage in the main sewer line caused by grease, tree roots, or large objects flushed down the sewer, raw (untreated) sewage will flow out of the sewer manhole, down the street or nearby storm drain, and directly into surface waterways and the ocean. [5] [6] These events, called sanitary sewer overflows, are a frequent cause of beach closures. Read more about other ways sewer systems can pollute coastal waterways later in this article.

Once sewage arrives at the treatment plant, it is typically treated using a range of physical, chemical and biological treatment methods before it is discharged into the environment; however, some wastewater plants provide more thorough treatment than others. Read more about these processes in our Wastewater Treatment Beachapedia article.

Combined Sewer Systems (CSSs)

Combined sewer systems (CSSs) are sewers that are designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater all in the same pipe. Approximately 772 municipalities across the US use CSSs for their wastewater management. [7] During dry weather and periods of light rain, combined sewer systems can transport all of their wastewater to a sewage treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged to a water body, like what happens in the separated sanitary sewer systems described above. During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, however, the wastewater volume in a combined sewer system often exceeds the capacity of the sewer system or treatment plant. When this happens, combined sewer systems are designed to overflow, discharging excess (untreated) wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies in events called combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Across the United States, CSOs release around 850 billion gallons of diluted yet untreated sewage into surface waterways every year. [8] As more extreme storms and flooding events are expected due to climate change, CSOs will likely occur more frequently, resulting in the release of even more untreated sewage into our waterways.

In this article, we’ll focus on sanitary sewer systems. Read more about CSOs here.

Current Use

While approximately 20% of US households use decentralized wastewater systems like septic, the majority of Americans are reliant on central sewers and wastewater treatment plants to manage their sewage and household wastewater. [9] As of 2021, the United States has over 800,000 miles of public sewer lines and 500,000 miles of private sewer laterals, according to an annual infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). [10] These sewers transport wastewater to the more than 16,000 active wastewater treatment plants nationwide, which are operating, on average, at 81% of their designed capacities. [11] As populations in our cities continue to grow, wastewater treatment plants will need to accommodate increasingly larger portions of US wastewater demand. Worryingly, the same report found that 15% of US treatment plants (approximately 2,400 facilities) have already reached or exceeded their design capacities, and many plants are reaching the end of their lifespans. [12] Read more about wastewater treatment plants here.

The expected lifespan for wastewater pipes is 50 to 100 years. [13] On average, drinking water and wastewater pipes in the United States are 45 years old, while some systems have components more than a century old. [14] The ASCE Report Card estimates that in 2019, utilities spent over $3 billion to replace almost 4,700 miles of sewer pipeline nationwide. [15] Even more investment in our wastewater infrastructure is necessary to try to make up for years of neglect that allowed sewer lines and wastewater treatment plants to fall into disrepair, causing at least 23,000 to 75,000 sewage spills and overflows, not including sewage backups into buildings, in the US each year according to EPA. [16] Furthermore, we must repair and rebuild this critical infrastructure with climate resiliency in mind. Continue reading to learn more about needed investments in wastewater infrastructure and climate later in this article.

Problems with Sewer Systems

How Do Sewer Systems Fail?

Wastewater infrastructure in the United States has been neglected for years, decades even, and allowed to fall into disrepair. Because of this neglect, sewage spills and infrastructure failures release approximately 900 billion gallons of under-treated sewage into surface waters every year, causing harm to public health and the environment. [17]

Figure 3. Sewage Spills and Failures.

Sewer systems can fail in a number of ways:

Sewer Lateral Failures. A sewer lateral, as described above, is the underground pipe that connects a residence or business to a main sewer line. These are also sometimes called “side sewers.” Local governments often consider either all or part of the sewer lateral to be the property and responsibility of the homeowner. Sometimes, a city or county will assume responsibility for the portion of a sewer lateral from the main line to the property line. Unfortunately, the privately-owned underground section of a lateral is often taken for granted until a problem erupts that can't be ignored, such as raw sewage backing up into homes. [18]

Figure 4. City vs Homeowner Responsibility of Sewers

Sewer laterals, and sewer lines in general, can be compromised in a number of ways. Build-ups of fat and grease (from cooking oils, petroleum-based cleaning products, and more) cause blockages in the system that can prevent the normal flow of wastewater to the treatment plant, and result in sewage backing up into streets, yards and even houses. Likewise, flushing foreign items like wipes and sanitary products can clog sewer lines and cause sewage backups. Even wipes that are labeled ‘flushable’ can cause problems; all products aside from toilet paper should be discarded in the garbage and not flushed (note that any hazardous products, like chemicals or batteries, should be disposed of at a local hazardous waste station). Tree roots can also grow into sewer lines, causing blockages similar to the grease build-ups described above. Or, over time, a very old sewer lateral pipe can simply corrode and crack.

Many cities and regional governments have compliance programs to regulate private sewer laterals, and there may also be financial assistance programs available to help fund repairs and replacements in your area. For example, the city of Berkeley, California offers a loan program for low-income homeowners to repair or replace sewer laterals that are found to be out of compliance.

Sewer Line and Pump Station Failures. In addition to the kinds of obstructions that can cause sewer laterals to break down, like grease blockages and tree roots, sewer lines can also suffer mechanical failure (e.g. cracks or blockages that lead to raw sewage releases). When blockages occur in the sewer line or at the treatment plant intake, wastewater treatment plants will intentionally release the untreated sewage and wastewater into the nearest water body to prevent further damage, which can result in public health concerns and beach closures. Poorly maintained equipment at pump stations can also lead to mechanical breakdowns that result in raw sewage spilling into our watersheds and running off into our waterways. These kinds of mechanical failures at pump stations are often reported as the cause of sewage spills.

Sewer Misconnections. Sometimes, sanitary sewers are inappropriately connected to stormwater sewers, or vice versa, in something called a misconnection. Sewer misconnections can send household sewage and wastewater (which should enter a sanitary sewer headed for a treatment plant) into a stormwater sewer, where it will be directly discharged to surface waterways and the ocean. [19] This often happens by accident. Homeowners with misconnections on their property are frequently unaware that their wastewater isn’t going where it should. [20] When this happens, untreated sewage flows into streams, rivers, lakes and the ocean, causing harm to human health and the environment (more on this later).

Sewer misconnections can also work the other way, connecting stormwater drains to sanitary sewer lines. When that happens, flows within the sewer lines are greatly increased during rainfall events as stormwater directly enters the sanitary sewer system, which can lead to sewer overflows. Wastewater treatment plants can only manage so much volume, and if the plant gets overwhelmed, undertreated wastewater is discharged directly to the ocean.

Sewer misconnections are a persistent issue in the United Kingdom, where it is estimated that there are between 150,000 and 500,000 homes with drain misconnections as of 2019. [21] In the US, these misconnections are addressed by city- and county-led Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination (IDDE) programs. An illicit discharge is defined as any discharge to the municipal separate storm sewer system that is not composed entirely of storm water, except for discharges allowed under an EPA-issued NPDES permit, or waters used for firefighting operations. IDDE programs are designed to prevent contamination of ground and surface water supplies by monitoring, inspection and removal of these illegal non-stormwater discharges.

Infrastructure Failure and Neglect. Arguably the biggest problem with poorly maintained sewers is that over the years breaks, cracks and corrosion of wastewater infrastructure (e.g. pipes, lids, etc.) allow rain and stormwater to infiltrate in and overwhelm the system, causing overflows of un- or under-treated sewage into local waterways. [22] The separate sanitary sewers that typically service US cities are designed to be closed systems that receive only wastewater and deliver that wastewater to a treatment plant for treatment before it is discharged into the environment or recycled.

Figure 5. Sanitary Sewer Layout. Image courtesy of The Constructor

Broken, cracked and rusty pipes allow rain to seep into the sewer during wet weather, which is particularly problematic during flooded conditions brought on by big storms and/or rising groundwater. Likewise, broken manhole covers, uncapped safety overflows, and misconnections between the storm drains and sanitary sewers can let in high volumes of water during rain or flood events. Treatment plants can only handle a certain volume of water at any given time, and when this capacity is surpassed, untreated sewage mixed with the stormwater that has seeped into the system will be released into local waterways to avoid backups in streets and homes. Learn more about sewer system failures and sewer backups from Bankrate.

How Do Sewer Systems Pollute Coastal Waters?

Failing sewer lines cause problems that can be broken into three main categories:

  • Exfiltration: when wastewater gets out of the pipe system and enters the surrounding ground
  • Inflow: when rain water directly enters the pipe system
  • Infiltration: when groundwater enters the system

For exfiltration to occur, the sewer pipes must be located above the groundwater. Exfiltration is less common than inflow and infiltration, but where it does occur, it can threaten groundwater aquifers that are a source of drinking water. Coastal areas generally have shallow groundwater tables, and inflow and infiltration tend to be more problematic as flood conditions can saturate the ground around and above sewer pipes and laterals.

Inflow is stormwater that enters into sanitary sewer systems at points of direct connection to the systems. Stormwater can come from various sources, including roof drains, outdoor basement stairwells, and drains in driveways. These sources are typically misconnections to sanitary sewer systems, via either direct connections or discharge into sinks or tubs, which let water from sources other than sanitary fixtures and drains to enter the sanitary sewer system, when it should be entering the stormwater sewer system or allowed to soak into the ground instead.

Infiltration is groundwater that enters sanitary sewer systems through cracks and/or leaks in the sanitary sewer pipes or laterals. Groundwater can enter these cracks wherever the pipes lie beneath the water table, or where the soil above the sewer systems becomes saturated. Soil saturation happens often in coastal areas after rain events and during flooded conditions.

Inflow and infiltration add “clear water” (rain or groundwater, which may still be dirty but isn’t wastewater) to sewer lines, increasing the load on the system. As the ground becomes saturated during rain events, inflow and infiltration can sometimes fill sanitary sewer systems to capacity, or even overload them. When this happens, either the wastewater flow moves backwards through the pipes to flood basements or homes, or it moves forward to the sewage treatment facility where it can overwhelm and disrupt treatment processes. When this occurs, treatment plants either discharge poorly treated or untreated wastewater into the environment. [23]

These sewer line failures are referred to as sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs), which release wastewater and potential pathogens onto streets, into waterways, and basements increasing potential health risks. As wastewater overflows into creeks, rivers, lakes, and streams it contaminates all bodies of water fed by the waterways and all creatures/plants coming in contact with the polluted water. Sewer overflows also contribute to beach advisories and closures due to fecal contamination. EPA estimates there are at least 23,000 to 75,000 SSOs in the US each year, not including sewage backups into buildings. [24]

The primary concern with aging, neglected wastewater infrastructure is sewage spills, which are a major problem in the United States. Sewage spills can result from any of the failures discussed above, and will likely be exacerbated by climate change (more on this later). In 2019, for example, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection reported 2,779 wastewater spills in the state, a significant increase from the 1,282 reported spills in 2007. Florida spills spiked in 2017 following Hurricane Irma, to a peak of 3,452 reported wastewater spills that year. [25]

Human health impacts from sewage spills are a serious and growing concern as spills become more frequent. Sewage pollution contains many harmful contaminants, including several types of disease-causing pathogens that can lead to lung and intestinal infections, symptoms like fever, diarrhea and vomiting, as well as even more dangerous diseases like typhoid fever and cholera. [26] High concentrations of bacteria like enterococcus, which is often used as an indicator of sewage pollution in water quality sampling, can cause serious infections when exposed to open wounds. [27] These are just a few examples of the health risks that sewage pollution poses. In the words of Marilu Flores, Surfrider’s regional manager for Florida and Puerto Rico: “If you have underlying health conditions, if you are immunocompromised, the sky’s the limit on how some of this bacteria can affect you.” [28]

Sewage spills, and the high concentrations of nitrogen and other nutrients sewage contains, also cause a suite of environmental problems in coastal ecosystems. Nitrogen acts as a fertilizer both on land and in the water, causing algae populations to skyrocket in events called algal blooms. These increased populations of algae eventually die and sink to the bottom of the water body to decompose, which depletes the dissolved oxygen in the water and often causes mass die-offs of fish, turtles, manatees and other aquatic life from the lack of oxygen and reduced food sources. When this happens on a large scale, affected areas are called dead zones.

Drops in dissolved oxygen are not the only consequence of eutrophication, or the over-enrichment of nitrogen and other nutrients in waterways. In tropical regions, algae can cover reefs, starving corals of sunlight and oxygen. The subsequent, sudden loss of reef habitat has repercussions for fish, with one study finding 83% of the most abundant species either severely reduced or completely eliminated following an algal bloom in the Gulf of Oman. [29] In more temperate regions, high levels of nitrogen in the water lead to the decline of seagrass beds, which provide nursery habitat for many important fisheries, as well as provide critical storage for atmospheric carbon as a blue carbon ecosystem. Eutrophication can also lead to an increase in harmful algal blooms and red tides that produce toxins that contaminate shellfish, cause fish kills and other sea life to die, and even threaten human health with a variety of mild to severe symptoms.

Threats to Sewer Systems from Climate Change

We are becoming increasingly familiar with the consequences of climate change and sea level rise, including changing weather patterns and increased intensity and frequency of strong coastal storms. What many might not be aware of is how these changing conditions increase the pressure placed on our wastewater and sewage infrastructure. This increased pressure will likely mean more sewage spills and failures in the future if we don’t make significant investments now to prepare our water infrastructure to become more resilient in the face of climate change.

Flooding associated with extreme weather events, which are expected to increase in intensity as our climate warms, poses a number of threats to our wastewater infrastructure. When these storms hit, cracked and corroded sewer pipes, manhole covers, and other parts of our wastewater infrastructure allow rain and stormwater runoff to enter sanitary sewers (also known as inflow and infiltration). Sanitary sewers, as discussed previously, are only designed to hold wastewater, so the sudden influx of stormwater can quickly overwhelm the sewer system and cause overflows of untreated sewage into local waterways. [30] In cities with combined sewer systems, where both sanitary wastewater and stormwater flow into the same sewers, overflows happen even more quickly. [31] Read more about Combined Sewer Overflows here.

These overflows may become more common even in dry weather. Many coastal regions in the US are already experiencing recurrent flooding at high tide during events aptly called high-tide flooding or sunny day flooding. Research shows that high-tide flooding events will become more common in areas already experiencing them, and will expand to currently unaffected areas as sea levels rise. [32]

Likewise, in low-lying coastal areas, sea level rise can cause seawater to infiltrate old pipes, through storm drains or compromised sanitary sewers. [33] Projected levels of sea level rise are also set to raise water tables, elevating the depth of permanently saturated soils and potentially flooding sewers with groundwater, even inland. This is already happening in Honolulu, Hawai’i, where a study has found direct evidence of tidally-driven groundwater flooding of the city’s wastewater infrastructure. [34] According to a study conducted across California, a coastal region with diverse topography and climate, 1 meter of sea-level rise is expected to expand the reach of areas flooded from below by approximately 50 to 130 meters inland, with low-lying coastal communities most at risk. [35] [36] The end result of groundwater flooding is the same as during rain or storm events: sewer systems get overwhelmed and discharge untreated sewage into local waterways. The risks to human health and the environment from sewage pollution remain the same as well, and aging, neglected infrastructure is only exacerbating those risks.


Policy Actions

Significant investments in repairing and rebuilding wastewater infrastructure are required to address the human health and environmental threats associated with sewage pollution. Our sewer systems have been neglected for years, decades even, resulting in approximately 900 billion gallons of under-treated sewage being discharged into surface waters every year. [37]

A number of states and communities are already investing in upgrading their wastewater infrastructure, replacing old, cracked and corroded pipes with new sewer lines, and updating antiquated pump stations to be more efficient. The city of Fort Lauderdale, FL, for example, has a $65 million project underway to install nearly 50,000 feet of new sewage pipe to stop spills. [38] Read more about that project here.

Since 1987, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided funding for states to upgrade their wastewater infrastructure through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). States match 20% of the funding from CWSRF loans and grants, which can be used for upgrading centralized sewer systems, wastewater treatment plants, decentralized wastewater systems like septic tanks, stormwater management efforts, as well as other projects focused on clean water. [39]

EPA is also responsible for conducting the Clean Watersheds Needs Survey (CWNS), which assesses the need and cost required to meet water quality goals set in the Clean Water Act. The survey evaluates needed investments in a number of categories, including sewer replacement/rehabilitation, infiltration and inflow correction, and stormwater management. The CWNS is supposed to be conducted every four years, but due to a lack of EPA funding in recent years, the last survey was released over nine years ago in 2012.

Congress is responsible for EPA’s budget, which funds both the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Clean Watersheds Needs Survey. The 2021 INVEST in America Act, which passed the House of Representatives on July 1, 2021, would authorize much-needed funding for wastewater infrastructure investments. Included in the House version of the bill was the Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act, which authorizes $8 billion annually over five years to the EPA CWSRF, and a Climate Resilience Provision that requires any CWSRF-funded infrastructure projects to complete a climate resiliency assessment and be designed and constructed to withstand climate change impacts. As of writing (July 2021), the bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Surfrider created our Stop Sewage Pollution campaign to help improve our wastewater infrastructure and ensure that all sewage in the US is adequately collected and treated to protect public and environmental health. This effort includes tracking state and federal policies like the CWSRF and BEACH Act, as well as operating the Blue Water Task Force, a national network of volunteers monitoring bacteria levels at more than 450 ocean, bay, estuary and freshwater sampling sites across the US. Read more about how to get involved in our Stop Sewage Pollution campaign here.

Personal Actions

There are many actions we all can take to care for our wastewater systems, regardless of infrastructure type. Good practices include:

  • Only flush the three P’s: pee, poop, and (toilet) paper.
  • Conserve water inside the house.
  • Don’t pour cooking grease or oils down the drain; instead, collect it in a container, freeze it, and throw it in the trash.
  • Check the ingredients label and opt for natural and mineral-based personal care products (like soaps and sunscreen) when possible.
  • Try to avoid cleaners with petroleum additives or fillers, as they act like grease and cause blockages once they enter a wastewater system.
  • Skip the powder detergents for the same reason as above.
  • Help prevent and capture stormwater by reducing impermeable landscapes, planting an Ocean Friendly Garden and building a rain swale.

Reducing stormwater and dry-weather urban runoff goes a long way to prevent sewer overflows. Some basic steps include using as little water as possible. Don't over-water your lawn, and adjust your sprinklers to avoid watering the pavement (it won't grow). Consider installing an Ocean Friendly Garden to increase the amount of rainwater absorbed into the ground, which reduces runoff entering sewer systems. Ocean Friendly Gardens apply something called the watershed approach to allow the soil to act like a sponge, soaking up rainwater to prevent flooding during storms and providing filtration to keep pollution from reaching groundwater and surface waterways. Check out some examples of Ocean Friendly Gardens in Long Island, NY here.

Case Study: Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Over the last five years, more than 1.6 billion gallons of sewage has spilled into communities and waterways across the state of Florida. [40] According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the number of sewage spills in the state has risen steadily over the past decade. [41] As mentioned earlier in this article, DEP reported 2,779 wastewater spills in 2019, compared with 1,282 reported spills in 2007. [42] Without addressing the state’s aging, neglected wastewater infrastructure, this problem will likely only get worse. In addition to the human health threats discussed above, sewage spills cause serious environmental harm in the form of cyanobacteria or blue-green algae blooms and toxic red tides, which are a big problem in Florida. Learn more about Florida’s Toxic Algae Crisis here.

Fort Lauderdale Sewage Spills

Between December 2019 and February 2020, a series of massive sewage spills dumped more than 211 million gallons of raw, untreated sewage into the coastal waters and watersheds of Fort Lauderdale. [43] In December 2019 alone, six large-scale sewer pipe breaks resulted in a cumulative 126 million gallons of raw, untreated sewage spilling onto city streets, lawns, and into nearby waterways. [44] The impact of the spill spread beyond its epicenter in the Tarpon River and Rio Vista areas of Fort Lauderdale into neighboring rivers and the ocean.

These pipe breaks constituted the largest sewage spill in Florida’s history, according to state officials. The spills prompted a state fine of $1.8 million, which includes a civil penalty of $1.45 million issued, said Governor DeSantis, in hopes of deterring other municipalities from neglecting their infrastructure to this extent. [45]

In response to the 2019-2020 spills, the City of Fort Lauderdale issued public advisories, which included warnings to avoid coming in contact with standing water near the pipe breaks, precautionary advisories for recreational water activities in surrounding areas, and swim advisories at local beaches. The state of Florida has a three-pronged approach to sewage spills, requiring utilities to report sewage releases immediately and enlisting the DEP to help utilities stop the spill as quickly as possible. DEP is also responsible for investigating spills to determine if violations and penalties should be issued, along with identifying ways to avoid future unauthorized discharges. [46]

So, how do these spills happen? As discussed throughout this article, aging infrastructure is most often to blame. Most of Fort Lauderdale’s sewer lines were built in the 1970s. [47] The lifespan for most wastewater pipes is 50 to 100 years, depending on the amount of stress put on them. [48] With Florida’s growing population and tourism industry, alongside rising sea levels, coastal storms and increased incidence of high tide and king tide flooding, these pipes are at the end of their lifetime and must be replaced.

Solutions for Fort Lauderdale

Small scale preventative measures (like sending cameras down manholes to check for leaks and cracked pipes [49]) can be taken to prepare for possible spills, especially in advance of hurricane season. But with widely neglected, aging infrastructure, these are Band-Aid solutions. What is really needed is sweeping investments in upgrading Fort Lauderdale’s (and the nation’s) wastewater infrastructure.

The City of Fort Lauderdale has a $65 million project currently underway to install nearly 50,000 feet of back-up sewage pipe in efforts to stop future spills. [50] [51] The project uses a ‘’trenchless construction’’ method which is less disruptive than traditional sewer construction methods, meaning the city was able to reduce construction time and lessen the project’s negative impact on residents. [52] Construction began in February of 2020, and as of May 2021, 36,500 feet of sewer line had been installed, with the project on track to be completed by June 2021.

In state policy news, Florida’s Clean Waterways Act was signed into law in June 2020. This bill requires local governments to develop septic remediation and wastewater treatment plans to meet pollution reduction requirements, and increases fines against utilities responsible for sewage spills. Utilities will also be required to make annual reports to the governor and lawmakers on all spills going forward. The Clean Waterways Act does not only deal in enforcement: the bill also created a DEP grant program to provide funding for projects to improve water quality and reduce excess nutrient pollution. Read more about Florida’s framework for water quality restoration, called a Basin Management Action Plan, here.

Increased monitoring of water quality in recreational waterways is also critical to better protect public health in the event of sewage spills. Florida’s Healthy Beaches Program, run by the state’s Department of Health, is responsible for testing water quality at Florida beaches. Due to cuts in funding in recent years, the program has limited the scope and frequency of monitoring, and nonprofit organizations like Surfrider have stepped in to help fill the gaps.

For years, Surfrider’s chapter network in Florida has been responding to sewage spills and providing water quality information so beachgoers know where it’s safe to surf, swim and recreate in the water. In some cases, they are even able to respond faster than the local health department. Within weeks of the Fort Lauderdale spills, the Broward Chapter rallied a team of new volunteers from various coastal recreational groups to start weekly testing of nearly a dozen new sites through the chapter’s Blue Water Task Force. The results complemented testing done by the Healthy Beaches Program and identified several public access sites that yielded bacteria results 10 times higher than the state health standard, but were not previously tested or posted with sewage warning signs. This information was extremely important to inform safe recreation and to protect public health during these sewage spill events. Read more about the Broward chapter’s efforts here.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the United States as a whole has a lot of work to do to address our neglected wastewater infrastructure. For more information, check out Surfrider’s Clean Water Initiative, Stop Sewage Spills at the Beach campaign and read more about Surfrider’s work in Florida on our Coastal Blog here, here and here.

Additional Resources

1. ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure (Wastewater)


  1. American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
  2. MSU Water. (2021). What’s the difference between Sanitary and Storm Sewers?
  3. Chris Dinesen Rogers. (2019, November 22). [ How Do Wetlands Filter Water?}
  4. Water Environment Federation. (2011, May). Access Water Knowledge: Sanitary Sewers
  5. Water Environment Federation. (2011, May). Access Water Knowledge: Sanitary Sewers
  6. US EPA. (2021, July 10). Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs)
  7. US EPA. (2021, May 3). Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs)
  8. US EPA. (2015, September 16). EPA Needs to Track Whether Its Major Municipal Settlements for Combined Sewer Overflows Benefit Water Quality.
  9. US EPA. (2018, December). Septic Systems Overview
  10. American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
  11. American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
  12. American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
  13. American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
  14. American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
  15. American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
  16. US EPA. (2021, July 10). Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs)
  17. Surfrider Foundation. (2020). Clean Water Report
  18. US EPA. (2014, June). Private Sewer Laterals
  19. Emily Cooper. (2019, July 18). Drain Misconnections Threaten Our Rivers
  20. CIWEM. (2014, June). Policy Position Statement: Misconnections
  21. Emily Cooper. (2019, July 18). Drain Misconnections Threaten Our Rivers
  22. US EPA. (2021, July 10). Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs)
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  24. US EPA. (2021, July 10). Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs)
  25. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  26. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  27. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  28. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  29. Ella Davies. (2010, October 8). Toxic algae rapidly kills coral.
  30. US EPA. (2021, July 10). Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs)
  31. US EPA. (2021, May 3). Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs)
  32. Thompson, P. R., Widlansky, M. J., Hamlington, B. D., et al. (2021, June 21). Rapid increases and extreme months in projections of United States high-tide flooding.
  33. McKenzie, T., Habel, S., Dulai, H. (2021, March 12). Sea-level rise drives wastewater leakage to coastal waters and storm drains.
  34. McKenzie, T., Habel, S., Dulai, H. (2021, March 12). Sea-level rise drives wastewater leakage to coastal waters and storm drains.
  35. Befus, K. M., Barnard, P. L., Hoover, D. J., et al. (2020, August 17). Increasing threat of coastal groundwater hazards from sea-level rise in California.
  36. US Geological Survey. (2020, September 30). New Model Shows Sea-level Rise Can Cause Increases in Groundwater Levels along California’s Coasts]
  37. Surfrider Foundation. (2020). Clean Water Report
  38. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  39. US EPA. (2021, July 3). Learn about the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF)
  40. Michael Sainato. (2020, September 10). Florida sewage spills expected to worsen due to ageing infrastructure.
  41. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  42. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  43. Jenny Staletovich, Caitie Switalski Muñoz. (2021, February 25). A Year Since The Spills: Fort Lauderdale Sewage Problems A Sign of Infrastructure Woes For Other Coastal Cities.
  44. Susannah Bryan. (2019, December 29). Fort Lauderdale sewage woes: ‘This is not the last break.’
  45. Susannah Bryan, Steve Bousquet. (2020, February 18). State fines Fort Lauderdale $1.8 million for sewage spills.
  46. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  47. Jenny Staletovich, Caitie Switalski Muñoz. (2021, February 25). A Year Since The Spills: Fort Lauderdale Sewage Problems A Sign of Infrastructure Woes For Other Coastal Cities.
  48. American Society of Civil Engineers. (2021). 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure
  49. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  50. Everitt Rosen. (2021). Major spills from Florida’s sewage treatment plants are on the rise - and so are the storms that can cause aging pipes to burst.
  51. City of Fort Lauderdale. (2020, October 20). Infrastructure Projects
  52. The Crossing Group. (2021). What is trenchless construction?