stormwater management

Help! I've been poisoned by stormwater!

For years talented fellow journalists -- and before them my best professors -- have emphasized the value of using all five of a journalist's senses to experience a story and enlighten readers, listeners and viewers. Great idea -- but tonight it went a little far for me. After more than a decade of writing about the perils of stormwater, tonight I actually tasted some.

It was far, far from on purpose. I decided to dash down to Pike Place Market to buy some fish, a rare thing nowadays since I don't work particularly near there.  

It was pouring as I drove back to my office. The windows fogged. I rolled them down while sitting at a stoplight. Then-- whoosh! -- passing cars sent walls of water cascading into the car. Unfortunately, when this started I had my mouth slightly open. (Maybe I was singing? Drooling? Mouth-breathing? I dunno....)

Yes, that foul mixture that I've described in seemingly innumerable articles is something I've looked at and smelled and heard and -- reluctantly -- touched in the past. I had no intention of going to this extent to understand this story.

Of course I spit and swished and spit and swished some more, using up a bit of mouthwash.

Now, here's the weird thing: I've written more than once about how bad it is to have copper in the waterways that are supposed to nourish young salmon, even at minuscule levels. And I've outlined how every one of us, every time we touch our brakes, unleashes a teensy-tiny amount of copper.

Byline: 

What are your nominations for the environmental problems sociologists should study?

Folks, it had been my intention to write tonight about the challenge to the feds' plans for Snake-Columbia river operations filed today by salmon advocates. But instead I got wrapped up in a discussion on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv about what sociologists should be studying in our realm. Here's what I told my fellow SEJers:

"Sewage disposal: What is our big hangup with composting toilets? Think of the infrastucture repair and construction costs we could save merely by figuring out what to do with our pee and our poop. Night soils were the answer in ancient China -- why not today, here?"

Should we be using composting toilets? Should NYT's "Toxic Waters" series on sewers, stormwater raise that question?

The latest installment of The New York Times' excellent "Toxic Waters" series has pushed me over the edge: I'm now firmly of the opinion these guys should win a Pulitzer.  

I've sung the praises of Charles Duhigg's reporting before, but he really got to the heart of the matter with this latest piece on sewage and stormwater.

It's been a while since I visited this topic, and in the meantime it seems the holy grail of related medical research has been found: research connecting the sloppy way our aging sewers are handling waste with actual human sickness. According to Duhigg:

A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, focusing on one Milwaukee hospital, indicated that the number of children suffering from serious diarrhea rose whenever local sewers overflowed. Another study, published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, estimated that as many as four million people become sick each year in California from swimming in waters containing the kind of pollution often linked to untreated sewage.

I've written extensively about these problems in the Puget Sound region. Duhigg and the Times are taking it to the national level. And yet, Duhigg doesn't forget to detail how the guys at the local sewer plant in Brooklyn get antsy when it starts raining much, generating stormwater that overpowers sewers in the Big Apple:

They choose cable television packages for their homes based on which company offers the best local weather forecasts. They know meteorologists by the sound of their voices. When the leaves begin to fall each autumn, clogging sewer grates and pipes, Mr.