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Reducing Sanitary Sewage Overflows


As we continue to try and improve recreational water quality around the state we are constantly looking for the sources and solutions for the problem.  Many environmental scientists would agree that the number one issue our surface waters are combating are excessive nutrients.  These nutrients spawn algal blooms which can decrease water clarity and eventually dissolved oxygen which in turn can reduce biodiversity.  The runoff which brings these nutrients also brings animal waste that contain fecal coliform bacteria.  High levels of these bacteria can result in health advisories being issued which will reduce our use of these waters and could economically impact some businesses.  Another source of nutrients and bacteria is sanitary sewage; sewage that leaves your home and is transported to sewage treatment facilities.  Problems within the system can cause Sanitary Sewage Overflows (SSOs) (http://cfpub.epa.gov/npdes/home.cfm?program_id=4 ) which can release untreated human waste into the environment.  These overflows can occur along the lines, at lift stations, and at manhole covers.  In some cases these SSOs discharge just a few gallons and other times it can be in the thousands of gallons.  There are times when the location of these SSOs are near creeks or other movable waterways that can carry the spill to other locations.


Quiet bend of the Escambia River Photo: Molly O'Connor

Quiet bend of the Escambia River
Photo: Molly O’Connor



In the Bringing Back the Bayous Program Florida Sea Grant is trying to educate local residents on methods they can employ which can reduce the amount of waste we are discharging into our waterways.  Topics such as Florida Friendly Landscaping (http://fyn.ifas.ufl.edu/ ), Living Shorelines (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/northwest/ecosys/section/living_shorelines.htm ), Estuary Friendly Living (https://www.flseagrant.org/tips/ ), and Clean Marina (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/cleanmarina/marina/default.htm ) have all been introduced.  In recent months there has been several reports of SSOs in Escambia County.  Many of these have been near local waterways and could significantly increase the bacteria count and health advisories issued.  The cause of these SSOs vary.  There were 45 SSOs reported in Escambia County between October 2013 and March 2014; which averages to 7.5 / month.  Below are the reported causes of these (source: www.ecua.fl.gov/news/154 ).


Cause Number   between

October   – December 2013

Number   between

January   – March 2014

Grease   clogs



Mainline   breaks



Rag/Wipe   clogs



Contractor   error






General   maintenance



Storm   water overflow







Number   of SSOs





Range   of discharge in gallons


12,300 – 20

21,000 – 150


Total   gallons discharged





These data indicate that the three main causes of SSOs are pouring grease down the drain, mainline breaks, and flushing rags/wipes down the toilet.  I have heard since graduate school that “if you can teach people one thing about how to help improve sewage treatment tell them not to pour kitchen grease down the sink”.  I have witnessed greased clogged sewer lines and know this to be a problem.  Though professionals have been stressing the importance of the negative impacts of this practice it is still the number one cause of SSOs in our area during this survey.  So, Step #1 – Do not Pour Kitchen Grease down the Drain.


"All drains lead to the sea".  Be aware of what you flush. Photo: Rick O'Connor

“All drains lead to the sea”. Be aware of what you flush.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Mainline breaks are to be expected for a city whose system is as old as ours.  Replacing the entire system would be a massive (and expensive) undertaking.  Our utility therefore replaces what they can within their budget.  However there are several retrofitting projects listed under the RESTORE projects that could significantly improve this process.


The third issue, rages/wipes, is the “new kid on the block”.  Though rags and wipes have been found in sewer lines for decades there has been an increase use of “FLUSHABLE WIPES” across the country.  These are sanitary wipes used at home that are advertised as “flushable” and so have been flushed as an easy/sanitary method of wipe disposal.  The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (http://www.nacwa.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1581&Itemid=335 ) has been reporting on this issue for the past four years but it really caught the attention of the municipalities and the public when the photograph of a 15 ton pile of “flushable wipes” came from the sewer lines of London.  The companies who produce these wipes argue that they are in fact flushable, and they are correct, the problem comes in that they are not degradable once they enter the sewer lines.  Consumer Reports compared the breakdown of these “flushable wipes” against standard toilet paper and found they did not break down at all within the time frame of the test (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/video-hub/home–garden/bed–bath/flushable-wipes/16935265001/22783507001/ ).  This suggest that the wipes are flushed but are remaining intact within the sewer lines and thus clogging and backing up flow triggering some of the SSOs communities are experiencing.  Step #2 – Do not flush “Flushable Wipes/Rags” down the toilet. 


Not all items labeled "flushable" are degradable and could cause sewage blocks down the line

Not all items labeled “flushable” are degradable and could cause sewage blocks down the line

If we can reduce two of the top three causes of SSOs in our area we may be able to reduce the number of those SSOs and thus reduce overflow into our bayous thus reducing high bacterial counts and health advisories.  Everyone needs to help to Bring Back Our Bayous.  For more information on this topic, or other topics pertaining to poor water quality, or to schedule a presentation on water quality issues contact Sea Grant Extension Agent Rick O’Connor at 475-5230 or roc1@ufl.edu

Permanent link to this article: https://escambia.ifas.ufl.edu/blog/2014/03/26/reducing-sanitary-sewage-overflows/