Wednesday’s heavy rains led to the release of raw sewage into the Gowanus Canal.

Why were Gowanus residents confronted by the smell and appearance of raw sewage? Check out this great video made by NY1 reporter Roger Clark, as part of his “How NYC Works” series.

Clark explains what ultimately happens to all of the rainwater that falls in New York City, along with our wastewater—what goes down our sinks, toilets, etc.

Says Clark, “New Yorkers use a lot of water. An average of 1.2 billion gallons goes down the drain every day. Plus, there’s everything that falls on the city when it rains or snows. All of that water, and everything else that flows down with it, has to go somewhere. So where does it all go? The only place it can. Into the waterways that surround us.”

But, as Clark explains, storm and wastewater usually passes through city treatment facilities before re-entering the environment….unless the system becomes overwhelmed.

“Most of the city runs on what’s known as a combined sewer system, meaning everything we send down the drain or toilet, and all the rain, snowmelt and other runoff that flows into any of our 140,000 street catch basins, all wind up in the same 6,000 miles of pipes.”

Here’s something to keep in mind while watching or reading Clark’s story: The state of New York, along with many environmental groups, has raised alarm bells about the condition of the state’s storm and wastewater infrastructure. As we saw this week, New York City sewers can be inundated by rainwater and release untreated sewage into rivers and creeks nearby.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation notes on its website:

“Every year, old sewers flooded by storm water release more than 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the New York Harbor alone.”

The DEC adds:

“Sewage and wastewater treatment facilities in New York State are deteriorating. Almost all of New York’s residents rely on these facilities to treat sewage and wastewater from our homes and businesses before they return it to our waterbodies.

However, one-quarter of the 610 facilities in New York are operating beyond their useful life expectancy and many others are using outmoded, inadequate technology, increasing their likelihood of tainting our waters.

Moreover, NYSDEC’s report on 30-year water quality trends found evidence that New York is retreating from the significant gains achieved when the current system was originally constructed and there is still more to do.”

In response, the City of New York has been investing in both grey and green stormwater management infrastructure which can absorb rainwater— and help to protect local waterways.

Want to learn more? New York Environment Report is about to launch a new website, with expanded coverage of environmental issues just like this.

We hope you’ll stay tuned!!