What Do Sewers and Our Rivers Have in Common? Too much.


Talking to Congress about sewage - you know, sometimes the joke is just too, too easy. But that's exactly why 85 river activists from all across the country are in town this week as a part of our fourth annual River Action Day.

The facts on sewage in this country are pretty astounding - very, very few Americans have any idea just how much raw and partially-treated sewage is spilled or legally dumped into our streams and rivers every year.

860 Billion Gallons. Enough to cover the entire state of Pennsylvania ankle-deep. Every single year.

Sounds like a problem you might face in a developing nation, but it's right here at home, including our nation's capital. In fact, we aren't the only ones watching anxiously for the latest dump of raw sewage here in Washington, DC - this weekend, hundreds of athletes will take part in the Nation's Triathlon, with a first-ever mass open-water swim in the Potomac.

Well, maybe. They'll swim, that is, if it doesn't rain within 48 hours of the race, which would vent raw sewage into the river from dozens of outfall pipes. They'll swim if tests for E. coli right before the swim come up negative. Lots of ifs and maybes. One thing's for sure; when it rains, sewage pours into rivers and streams all across America.

I hope the Nation's Triathlon swim goes off without a hitch and those hundreds of triathletes get to experience the thrill of an open-water swim in a big river. Even if for just one day, they will show vividly how healthy rivers, healthy communities and healthy people go together.

But the other 364 days a year, kayakers, sailboaters, water skiers, rowing crews, or just people who like to watch their kids or dogs play in the water get to play a fecal bacteria lottery, with the local government refusing to tell them [a pdf download] whether or not the sewage treatment plant or sewer system is dumping into the river that day.

Millions of people every year lose that bet and are sickened by contact with sewage-polluted water.

That's why River Action Day advocates from all over the country spent Tuesday stumping all over Capitol Hill for the Sewage Right To Know Act of 2007. The bill has a simple premise: when there's sewage in the water, government needs to tell us. Introduced in the House by Reps. Tim Bishop (D-NY) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and in the Senate by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), this common sense legislation would give people vital information to protect themselves, their children, and their pets.

I urged participants to go home and talk to their community leaders about this and other important river issues, but several of the activists here look those leaders in the mirror every morning. Leaders like Mayor Tony Gioia of Camp Verde, Arizona, who was also in town to talk about protecting the Verde River and celebrating Fossil Creek, America's best comeback river story, by designating it Wild and Scenic. Or leaders like Caleen Sisk-Franco, Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, whose community is fighting against plans to raise the Shasta Dam in Northern California, which would flood lands sacred to her tribe.

Every year, River Action Day is an opportunity for folks to talk straight poop to Congress. This year, though, it was just a little more literal than usual.

What Do Sewers and Our Rivers Have in Common? Too much.