Vital Public Notice of Sewage in New Jersey Waters, Just in Time for Summer

At the North Hudson Sewerage Authority control room staffers monitor CSOs in real time on this screen.
A kayaker on the Hackensack River in Jersey City by an outfall at the end of Sip Avenue.

UPDATE June 30: Several operators of combined-sewer systems in New Jersey are now participating as the NJ CSO Group in the Combined Sewer Overflow Notification website:  This is a web application that notifies the public of the possibility of a combined-sewer overflow at any of the outfall locations in the municipality via an online screen. The website uses computer models and information about recent rainfall to calculate the probability of such overflows.

When Emilio DeLia lived in the Country Village section of Jersey City, Newark Bay was right across the street, offering unfettered access to the lower Hackensack and Passaic rivers. Every time he put his canoe or kayak into Newark Bay, he paddled by at least a couple of combined sewer system outfalls, where sewage can discharge into waterways during rain events. He has even weathered an active combined sewer overflow (CSO) event but because he is a seasoned paddler, such discharges did not stop him from going out on the river. Even though Emilio is an advanced kayaker, he knows the importance of good information in helping to keep recreational water users safe. “People have the resource of this waterfront literally feet from their homes, so public information about combined sewer overflows is vital”, he said.

There are 213 CSOs in New Jersey where raw sewage flows directly into waterways after rainstorms, threatening human health and the environment. In areas served by a combined sewer system, storm and wastewater flow through the same pipe to a sewage treatment facility, but during heavy rains some of the pipes aren’t able to handle the additional volume of water, so rather than have sewer pipes back up into homes and streets, the system sends a portion of the combined stormwater and wastewater into local waterways without it going through a treatment plant first. Contact with the untreated water can cause illness ranging from ear and skin infections to meningitis and encephalitis.

Required by Height of Summer Season

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) issued permits to combined sewer system operators last July. The permits required that, by January 2016, public signs be posted near combined sewer discharge locations, or outfalls. All New Jersey operators have taken this first step. The permits also required that combined sewer system operators be able to notify the public of overflow events via a telephone hotline or website that can provide up-to-date information regarding CSO occurrences. These public notification systems are required to be in place by July 1.

Although public notice of CSO occurrence is required as of July 1, such notice is only as good as the data and information provided. Combined sewer system operators use any of several different types of detection methods — modeling, monitoring, or observation — to determine whether CSOs events occur. Modeling uses predictive mathematical calculations based on watershed and rainfall information. Monitoring uses equipment installed at the outfall that collects real-time water flow information that can be downloaded and analyzed. Observation, usually employed in smaller communities, uses visual checks of the outfall done by staff.

New Jersey Starts To Come Online

nhsa web
This map on the NHSA’s website provides real-time information on CSOs.

One group in New Jersey has taken the lead on implementing CSO notification systems prior to the July 1 date. The North Hudson Sewerage Authority, which serves Hoboken, Union City, Weehawken, and West New York, has 10 combined sewer outfalls along the Hudson River. The authority’s Waterbody Advisory System provides the public with real-time information related to CSOs into the Hudson River. An online color-coded map alerts the public in real time when CSO event occurs, based on level sensors in the sewer system that monitor and report overflow incidents. Each circle depicts one combined sewer outfall and changes color with the conditions: Green indicates no overflow, red indicates there has been CSO activity and serves as a warning that contact with the water within 100 feet should be avoided, and purple indicates when a monitoring unit is offline. By selecting the colored circle and clicking on the dispatch tab, users can see the status and end date and time of the most recent CSO event. “Our public notification system is real-time, simple to access and easy to understand,” said NHSA Executive Director Dr. Richard J. Wolff. “With increasing recreational activity in the Hudson River, it’s important that people know when to avoid the areas around the outfalls, and our system enables them to do just that.”

The Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority has taken a different approach than real-time monitoring. It uses modeling with predictive mathematical calculations to identify under which storm conditions outfalls would be theoretically predicted to overflow. When such storm conditions actually occur, CCMUA will put a notification on its website warning of the likelihood of a CSO event.

The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, which has the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant, also uses a model to predict when CSO events will overflow. This modeling is based on meteorological data. If the model shows that rainfall amounts will produce enough volume to cause a combined sewer outfall to discharge, the utility will flag the portion of the waterbody belonging to that CSO permittee as having a possible CSO event. According to PVSC, its CSO notification functionality will be available on its website by July 1. The CSO Notification page will be accessible from PVSC’s website and the websites of the other participating CSO permittees via a link, and will be updated hourly.

Lessons from Chicago, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

In Chicago, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has developed a CSO Notification Plan for overflows to waterways, as required by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The district maintains a list of interested parties’ emails, to which it sends alerts of CSO events into Lake Michigan. There are ongoing opportunities for citizens to sign up on the district’s website for such alerts. In addition, the district provides a map (updated daily) on its website that shows the public CSO events as a color-coded graphic with the waterways either blue (no outfall) or red (outfall). However, the website clearly states that the information is only updated daily, not in real-time. Further, it states that not all CSOs are equipped with monitoring equipment so some CSO events may be occurring but not be shown.

New York has a public notification of CSO events in its CSO Wet Weather Advisory program that has been up and running since January. This accelerated schedule is likely due to the passage of New York’s Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law of 2013, requiring that discharges of sewage be reported by combined sewer system operators to New York Department of Conservation within two hours and to the public and municipalities within four hours. On the DEC’s website, people can sign up to receive alerts by email, text or phone and DEC alerts them to the date and time of discharge, the location, expected duration, and the steps being taken to contain it.

To notify river users of CSO events, Washington, D.C., has installed CSO event indicator lights at two points: the Potomac River at Rock Creek and the Anacostia River at the South Capitol Street Bridge. When these lights are lit red there is an active CSO event; when lit yellow there has been one in the past 24 hours; and when unlit there is no event. By 2025, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority expects to reduce CSOs into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers by over 95 percent. Sewer and stormwater pipes will be separated, in order to eliminate several combined sewer systems and use the remaining outfalls for stormwater only.

A First Step in the Right Direction

Public notification of CSO events is a vital first step, but much more remains to be done to eliminate the problem of combined-sewer overflows. Opportunities for public participation in permanent CSO solutions are coming down the pipe. The NJDEP permits require municipalities and wastewater treatment plants to develop, within the next four years, Long Term Control Plans that evaluate their sewage infrastructure options and propose steps to improve them. Outreach to and input from the public are required as part of the development of these plans.

As monitoring and notifications systems are set in place in New Jersey communities, Jersey Water Works will provide updates on progress.

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