Why I spent an evening hanging out in a sewer

Photo by Steve Duncan, undercity.org

“That’s all raw sewage,” yelled Leif Percifield over the roar of rushing water. We stood 15 feet underground on a ledge, watching a tide of human waste below us as it was sucked into a pipe headed for a treatment plant along Brooklyn’s East River.

Here Percifield, a graduate student at Parsons, who describes himself as a “Hacker, Interactive Developer, and Geek” on his Twitter page, hopes to install a prototype of a sensor that will allow New York City sewers to “talk back” to residents. Having opened a manhole cover and shimmied down to the ledge, he was paying particular attention to a door that has been designed to lift every time it rains and allow untreated sewage to flow directly into New York Harbor, the city’s number one source of water pollution.

DontFlushMe is Percifield’s attempt to deal with combined sewage overflows, or CSOs, through a low-cost solution that engages locals. He plans to install sensors that detect rising water levels in all of New York City’s combined sewers (those that receive both waste water and rainwater) and alert neighborhood residents when levels reach the point of risk. The sensor would send information to a database to be distributed by text message to neighborhood denizens. New Yorkers could opt not to flush their toilets until levels recede and thus prevent fouling.

A New York City map designed by the GIS expert Liz Barry of Public Laboratory (a draft version for one that will allow users to locate the CSO nearest them) reveals how common CSOs are: there are 460 in New York City, funneling 27 billion gallons of raw sewage into local waters each year. (A recent video on the DontFlushMe website shows the repugnant effects of Tropical Storm Irene.) Read more

Solutions for New York City’s Sewer Problem

It's clogged up! Photo courtesy of Leif Percifeld.

Last week, Harlem residents held their noses as millions of gallons of untreated sewage water flowed straight into the Harlem and Hudson rivers because of a sewage plant fire. On the hottest day of the year, precious beaches and water areas were off limits, too toxic to swim in, as a repair team took shifts working in the heat to fix the plant.

But the crisis was more than just an isolated incident; it was symptomatic of a larger, structural problem in the way New York City – home to 8.5 million people – deals with its residents’ liquid waste.

Each year, 27 billion gallons of raw sewage are dumped into the New York City harbor, making sewage, or more specifically, the city’s inability to process waste water, the largest source of water pollution in the city. This dumping is caused by Combined Sewer Overflows that occur when the sewer system becomes overloaded by heavy rain on top of normal sewage flows. Overburdened city infrastructure is simply not capable of handing so much water. Read more