We’re heading into the last weekend of summer, and the beach beckons. But before you grab your floppy hat and sunscreen, you might want to check whether your local waters have recently been contaminated with partially treated sewage.
Over recent months, we’ve been bombarded with images of the explosion of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. In telling that story, countless news shows focused on “beach closed” signs throughout the Southeast. But the reality is that beach closings are not limited to the Gulf coast. The TV networks could have easily taken their camera footage of those same “beach closed” signs in Rhode Island, Michigan and several other states.
Unlike the catastrophe in the Gulf, however, these beach closings occur year in and year out. Lakefront and ocean beaches are closed regularly because improperly treated wastewater has been dumped into our waterways simply because utilities do not have the capacity to treat it properly. Federal laws have been on the books for more than 30 years to make sure our residential and industrial sewage is adequately cleaned up before being discharged into lakes, rivers or oceans. Still, we see an annual wave of beach closures throughout the United States.
Even in developed countries like the United States, outbreaks of illness occur due to poorly treated wastewater. Based on data collected between 2002 and 2004, the Academy of Pediatrics reported that Milwaukee city hospitals experienced a significant increase in emergency room visits to treat diarrhea after partially treated sewage flowed into Lake Michigan. Worst of all, these hospitalizations could have easily been prevented. The problems are not limited to the Great Lakes. According to U. S. government estimates, from 1.8 to 3.5 million Americans become ill every year from recreational contact with contaminated waterways.
In the Gulf, we’ve seen a continual scramble to find the right technology to stem the flow of oil. The solutions to the more common beach closures are already known and readily available.
In most cases, pollution is caused by greed or political inertia. Many industries regularly dump waste without proper treatment. Some of the prime culprits have been large animal farms and meat processing plants.
But by far the most common cause of wastewater pollution is a lack of leadership. Elected leaders of city, regional or state governments fail to maintain sewer treatment plants to meet the needs of growing populations or industries. Most political leaders fail to act because infrastructure improvements cost money and asking their constituents for money might make them unpopular and vulnerable at the next election.
As a former elected official, I get it. No one wants to talk about what happens to our sewer water, never mind pay higher rates or taxes to repair or upgrade a sewer system.
And after decades of neglect, our country’s water infrastructure is in desperate need of upgrade. According to the General Accounting Office, we under-invest in our wastewater systems to the tune of $20 billion a year.
The good news is that we already know how to solve this dilemma. When elected leaders find the courage to share the consequences of failing to act with their constituents, investment in infrastructure typically increases. Consumers become willing to pay more in order to protect public health and the environment once they understand the problem.
The vast majority of “beach closed” signs could be a thing of the past. We would all benefit from healthier waters – not to mention cleaner beaches on hot summer days.