Athletes gearing up for the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington, D.C. last weekend were disappointed to learn that the swim portion of their race had been cancelled as a result of a sewage spill into the Potomac River just north of the race venue. D.C.’s aging sewage pipes had overflowed after heavy rain Saturday, causing a mixture of raw sewage and storm water to overflow into the Potomac for more than 15 minutes, according to D.C. environmental officials, who believed that high bacteria levels, specifically E.coli, made the river unsafe for swimming.
The average sewer pipe in D.C. is almost 100 years old, and most should have been replaced decades ago. And as is the case in other older cities, many of the District’s “combined” sewer pipes also carry rainwater runoff, so that that waste from bathrooms, homes, businesses, and industry flows into the same pipes as rain running off roofs and streets. Storms regularly cause those pipes to overflow and as a result, raw sewage flows into the Potomac, as well as D.C.’s Anacostia River and Rock Creek, during hard rains. In May, for example, five million gallons of sewage spilled across the Capital Crescent Trail and into the Potomac River, denying thousands of runners and cyclists access to the popular trail.
Unfortunately, many other cities have had to cancel, or consider cancelling, open-water swim races as a result of spills caused by decrepit sewers overflowing. Last year, after rain moved through the Pittsburgh area and caused old, combined sewers to overflow into the Allegheny River, Pittsburgh Triathlon organizers came close to calling off the swim portion of that race, and one competitor who completed the 1,500 meter swim was treated in a local hospital for diarrhea and vomiting. And New York City opted not to host another Ironman Triathlon after its inaugural race in 2012, which was marred by a sewage leak in Westchester County that discharged raw sewage into the Hudson River, threatening to force cancellation of the event less than 24 hours before the start. The quality of the Hudson water was ultimately found to be safe after testing, but organizers considered the likelihood of future water contamination high enough not to host future Ironman races there. And several years ago, race officials in Chicago cancelled the swim portion of a triathlon in that city due to the risk of E. coli caused by heavy rains overflowing the city’s sewers.
Billions of dollars are needed to replace deteriorating sewers in cities and towns all over the United States; without those funds, urban environmental officials predict increasingly frequent contamination by sewage bacteria and regular disruptions to recreational activities like triathlons and other open-water races. As always, CWC is committed to raising awareness of our nation’s deteriorating water infrastructure, the effects it has on Americans’ daily lives, and the urgent need for resources and funds directed to modernizing and replacing that infrastructure all over the country.
For more information, including how to help us out by donating, visit http://www.cleanwatercouncil.org.