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Health, Science & Environment

How does raw sewage end up in Ohio’s waterways? A new podcast has the answers

Three people dressed in jackets stand inside a stormwater drain. One holds a microphone to record for a podcast.
Jeff Dean
Ella Rowen, Becca Costello and the Metropolitan Sewer District's Deb Leonard in the Lick Run stormwater drain in Cincinnati in March 2024.

Cincinnati has a problem: every year billions of gallons of raw sewage end up in the city’s waterways.

The city has a combined sewer system, so toilet water and stormwater flow through the same pipes. Normally this water is treated, but if it rains enough, the system will overflow, releasing raw sewage straight into waterways.

This doesn’t just happen in Cincinnati. Across Ohio, cities like Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, Portsmouth, Springfield and Sandusky all have combined sewer systems, along with other major cities in the U.S., including Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

As climate change leads to more extreme rain events, sewage overflows have the potential to become more common. So, what’s being done to address this ‘crappy’ issue?

That’s the topic of Backed Up, a new podcast by Ohio Newsroom member station WVXU. Hosts Ella Rowen and Becca Costello joined the Ohio Newsroom to help solve this sewage mystery.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

On how raw sewage gets into Cincinnati’s waterways

Rowen: “Cincinnati has what's called a combined sewer system. That basically means everything you flush down the toilet and all the storm water coming from the sky goes into the same pipes, which sounds pretty normal if you're new to the topic like I was when I started this project. But actually, what can happen is when there is a big rain event, the system will overflow. And then that water has to come out somewhere, so they have exit points for the sewage to get out into waterways. It’s [built that way] on purpose with the hope of preventing other issues like sewer backups.”

On the impact on residents

Rowen: “We focus on a few stories of people who've experienced sewer backups in their basements. That means having actual raw sewage in your basement, which can be very dangerous. For example, we spoke to Florence Miller, who easily could have drowned if she had fallen into that water [in her basement]. That's residential, but businesses have also experienced this. And then people who just like to use waterways recreationally can also come into contact with sewage that way.”

On why this problem is still happening

Costello: “One of the things that makes Cincinnati a little unique is its political structure. There’s shared ownership and governorship of the Metropolitan Sewer District between the city and the county. And that makes things really difficult and politically fraught.

“But why does the system continue to get overwhelmed? The rain is really one of the biggest problems here, and climate change is making this potentially worse. We’re not only getting more rain, but we're getting it in a shorter period of time. And that's exactly what causes systems like the one in Cincinnati to overflow.”

On solutions

Costello: “You can't build combined sewer systems anymore. The federal EPA and state EPAs are all on [top of] this issue. Cincinnati [which built its combined sewer system a long time ago] has what's called a consent decree, where they're mandated to spend a lot, a lot, a lot of money to build new infrastructure to make this problem go away. Lots of other cities in Ohio are now, or have previously been, under a consent decree. So we go into all of that legal stuff, which again, sounds even more boring than sewers, but I promise it's so interesting.”

Health, Science & Environment The Ohio NewsroomsewageWaterwayspodcast
Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.