Stop Sewer Backups & Flooding

For businesses, stormwater fees based on impervious surface would be fairer and more accurate because the cost would be borne by the user on the basis of demand placed on the sewer system. And the business owner is provided with a strong incentive to add trees and greenspace to absorb stormwater on site
Howard Neukrug
Director, Office of Watersheds
Philadelphia Water Department

Fix sewers that cause property damage and endanger health.

 In the previous year alone, one out of five Philadelphia residents surveyed said that their basement flooded and one in three Philadelphia businesses experienced flood damage to their property. Built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the city's combined sewers are unable to handle both wastewater and the millions of gallons of stormwater that run off paved surfaces into storm drains after rain and snow. As a result, wastewater ends up backing up into homes or flowing untreated into our rivers.

Stormwater can overwhelm Philadelphia's combined sewer system in minutes. When the sewer pipes cannot hold any more water, streets and properties flood. Sewage and water already within the system back up and into the nearest available outlet, whether that be a remodeled basement or a warehouse space. Philadelphia residents tell horror stories of finding human feces and toilet paper in their basements. And besides flooding our homes and streets, polluted stormwater runs into our rivers. Stormwater -- filled with raw sewage, litter, oil, bacteria, and other pollutants -- spews into neighborhood streams and rivers through 180 combined sewer overflow (CSO) discharge points11.

The city should work through its substantial backlog of high-priority sewer repairs, starting with those parts of the city where citizens suffer repeated damage to their health or property from sewage backflows. While home plumbing problems may cause individual incidents of flooding or sewage backflow, when whole blocks and neighborhoods are flooded during the same event, the problem lies with the city's sewer system. The Philadelphia Water Department should actively invite complaints from affected residents and businesses and map this data. When this data indicates a problem affecting multiple properties in the same area, an inspection should be conducted. Where an inspection shows city responsibility for flooding or sewage backflow, the city should quickly and effectively repair the sewer lines and add backflow devices to prevent sewer contents from backing up into homes in the future. A quick-turnaround maintenance and repair program that is responsive to citizen complaints will allow for timely responses and put an end to harmful and unnecessary flooding and sewer incidents.

Philadelphia should provide incentives to existing property owners to control stormwater with natural and structural solutions. Philadelphia set strict rules in January 2006 to ensure that new development will not burden our overwhelmed sewer system. But that is only one part of the solution. The city should provide incentives for existing owners to reduce impervious surfaces and add plants and trees to absorb runoff. And the city should lead by example. The city holds vast tracts of land, either temporarily (as vacant lots) or permanently (as protected parkland), that can showcase good stormwater features, such as rain gardens, rain barrels, landscaped medians, and street trees. These break up paved surfaces and take pressure off of the storm drainage system. These natural solutions can be as effective as conventional structural improvements in reducing the volume of wastewater. They also provide quality-of-life improvements that you don't get from a big underground pipe -- making neighborhoods prettier, creating pleasant areas for gathering or recreation, and improving air quality.

Every Philadelphia neighborhood must be able to rely on a functioning, effective sewer system that will prevent properties from unnecessary damage.