The NY Times is running a series of articles with the rather mysterious title, "Toxic Waters: America's Growing Pollution Problem." Mysterious because while water pollution is a major problem, it is one thing about our lives that is manifestly getting better. The rivers through our major cities used to be giant, stinking sewers that regularly caught on fire, and now they are clean enough that people want to live along them again. From New York to Oakland, waterfront areas that used to be home only to warehouses are filling with condos that have windows looking toward the water, something that was never done in the industrial age.
Today's Times piece is on the old problem that insiders call "combined sewerage overflows." The sewer systems are in our old cities are "combined," that is, sewage and rainwater runoff flow through the same pipes. So when it rains hard, too much water enters the pipes for the sewage plants to handle, and they have to let the mixture of sewage and rainwater flow untreated into the nearest river. The technology for solving this problem is rather simple: separate the sewers. This is how all new systems have been built since around 1970. But we have so many old sewer pipes running deep under all of our old cities that to do this would cost around a trillion dollars. The estimate for New York alone, according to the Times, is $58 billion. So what sewer authorities across the country are trying to do is to increase the storage capacity of their systems, so they can store the rainwater that falls in an average storm and treat it over the next several days. In Washington, DC, the plan is to tunnel a sort of ring sewer deep underground that would serve this function. But these storage devices, even if built -- the costs are in the billions -- would not hold all the water from really large storms, so some sewage overflows will continue indefinitely, and the water in the East River will never be safe for swimming. Not to mention that Americans are constantly increasing the amount of water we use in our homes, further adding to the problem.
Water pollution, whether we are talking about fertilizer runoff, sewage overflows, or synthetic hormones, is a problem we could solve whenever we feel like it. We have the technology. We just don't feel like paying for it.