Guest post by Sean Hoffmann.
For many of us growing up, water was a source of formative experiences and cherished memories. For me, that source was the Neshaminy Creek in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As far as waterways go, it’s just a modest tributary of the Delaware River; one so shallow that an adult can almost always touch the bottom. But for my family and a select few other locals, the creek (or “crick” as my grandfather called it) was a place to enjoy the beauty of Pennsylvania’s natural world. As a kid, I spent countless hours swimming, fishing, canoeing and just plain exploring the creek and its wooded banks.
However, special places such as this might not be as idyllic as many of us assume; sewage overflows and runoff pollution from too many paved surfaces frequently make waterways across America unsafe for swimming. Fortunately, the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which recently passed Congress, has some good news for waterways like Neshaminy Creek. The bill provides more funding to stop pollution and rejects efforts to weaken clean water protections along the way.
Everyone’s local creek, lake or beach should be safe for swimming, but too often, that’s not the case. Every year in the United States, millions of people get sick from swimming in water contaminated with sewage or runoff from paved surfaces. As documented in our partner Environment America Research & Policy Center's 2021 Safe for Swimming Report, more than half of all the 3,166 beaches across America that we reviewed were unsafe for swimming on at least one day in 2020. I’m not sure how often the creek gets tested for pollution, if it gets tested at all. It could easily be one of the many waterways Americans love that are unsafe for swimming.
We have so many unsafe beaches and waterways because America’s wastewater infrastructure has been badly outdated and in disrepair for too long. Many cities and towns, especially in the Northeast, where I’m from, have combined sewer systems, which collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater into one pipe -- and therefore empty raw sewage into the nearest waterway when it rains too much. Additionally, overdevelopment has destroyed huge swaths of America’s wetlands, which can help filter out toxins in water. Development has also increased paved surfaces, which often deliver harmful substances into our waterways when it rains.
Fixing these problems by repairing and enhancing our infrastructure has long been in our grasp. For example, we’ve had the ability to address pollution problems by restoring wetlands and implementing green infrastructure such as rain gardens that can absorb stormwater. We’ve also been able to ensure that less wastewater makes it into our waterways by separating our combined sewage infrastructure and installing filtration systems (such as baffle boxes) to trap solid waste and other pollutants. Additionally, in places with fast-growing populations, we can enlarge sewers and improve pump stations and treatment plants. That could prevent sewage leakage and ensure we effectively treat water before discharging it into waterways. But this all takes money. Lots of it.