What is the Environmental Impact of Wastewater?

Out of sight, out of mind. That’s a common refrain for many people with easy access to wastewater disposal. We get it! It’s easy to take for granted the incredible convenience that wastewater disposal and treatment provides. After all, we live in a modern society with modern conveniences, and wastewater treatment is a baseline expectation (as it should be!). But when you look at the big picture, we’re not that far removed from a time when wastewater disposal was less than ideal—especially here in Colorado. According to the City of Fort Collins, sewage was regularly piped directly into the Poudre River as late as the 1930s. Flush it and forget it? Not if you were planning to go swimming in the river.

We’ve come a long way since then, and here at the South Fort Collins Sanitation District (SFCSD), we take our role as environmental stewards seriously. We have since we established the District way back in 1964.

Neglecting wastewater causes immense damage to lives, livelihoods and natural systems. It destroys our precious and invaluable waterways that are home to rich ecosystems, and spreads disease through our community. That’s why we work so hard every day to ensure everything that’s flushed down the toilet or poured down the drain gets treated to the highest EPA standards.

But what if it doesn’t?

In this blog, we’ll walk through exactly how wastewater neglect impacts our environment, and we’ll dispel a few myths about wastewater treatment along the way.

What’s so Bad About Wastewater?

Ever since the dawn of sedentary human civilization, much time and effort has been invested into the import of fresh resources and the export of waste. But the science behind how to export that waste hasn’t always been ideal. Send waste down the nearby river? Sure! That’s the original version of “flush it and forget it,” and it’s still practiced around the world where modern sanitation solutions haven’t taken hold.

But for people and animals who live downriver, the influx of human waste is a clear and present danger. Waterborne diseases can spread rapidly when people bathe in or consume unsanitary water. Protozoa, bacteria and viruses thrive in these conditions and cause sickness in humans and animals. That’s just the beginning.

Soil Contamination

There’s a reason why many refer to Earth’s soil as a sink. Just think of how much water washes down into the soil every day! It’s also a great holder of water: In fact, two percent of the world’s water is stored as groundwater. With all of this water, soil naturally picks up elements found in the stuff. Untreated wastewater, thusly, can cause the buildup of toxins in that soil, like pathogens, heavy metals, toxic chemicals and more. And considering we grow the majority of our crops in that soil, that wastewater can cause the breakdown of healthy agricultural growing areas.

Greywater, however, which is often used in many scenarios as an irrigation source, should not be confused with wastewater as it is devoid of any human fecal matter.

Disease Spread

Wastewater has been a major cause of disease spread since the dawn of civilization, but unfortunately the problem still persists around the world. As mentioned before, pathogens can easily spread from the use of contaminated water in bathing, or the consumption of contaminated water. Anyone who has become sick from drinking a questionable water source—whether it’s a contaminated stream in nature or a pathogen-ridden public water supply in a town—knows how serious the effects can be.

The long list of diseases known to spread due to contaminated water in the United States illustrates that this issue isn’t relegated to faraway lands—it’s an issue at home, too.

Natural Habitat Destruction

Cleaning wastewater is about more than just removing the obvious fats, oils and solids. Much of what can harm humans, wildlife and plants happens at the microscopic level. Case-in-point: Nitrates and phosphates. While those nutrients promote plant growth, too much can be a bad thing. What has too much nitrate and phosphate? Wastewater. Untreated wastewater that’s reintroduced back into our waterways can cause rapid growth of plants and algae, which depletes oxygen and kills fish and aquatic life. It also causes a pretty gnarly odor, too.

But the solids, oils, greases and other elements common in wastewater can also have an immediate impact on aquatic life by causing direct harm and degrade natural habitats.

Unsafe Recreation

In the face of death and destruction, the inability to SUP on a river seems like a trite concern, but it’s nothing to take lightly. The influx of wastewater into our natural systems makes outdoor recreation a hazard, which prevents access and, in turn, lowers quality of life—it also lowers the appeal of an area and can lead to economic downturn.

Is Wastewater Treatment Bad for the Environment?

Now that we’ve established that wastewater is objectively bad for the environment, what about the process of wastewater treatment?

It’s a common misconception that the treatment of wastewater involves bulk use of chemicals, but that’s not so. At the SFCSD wastewater treatment facility, we mimic the natural process that exists in lakes in streams—only we’ve engineered it to be able to treat water in mass quantities. To do this, we create an environment for naturally occurring bacteria to thrive and breakdown waste products, which creates a byproduct of CO2 and water. Thanks to our new ATAD process, it also creates a byproduct of biosolids, which is basically liquid composting on a mass scale To learn more about how we approach wastewater treatment and its relation to the environment, visit our Environmental Initiatives page.

You Can Help Keep Water Clean

Now that you know how serious wastewater treatment is for the environment, you might also be curious about how you can help ensure the continued and uninterrupted treatment of said water. It’s simple: When it doubt, throw it out. Be smart about what you send down the drain or toilet by visiting our Do Not Flush page.

If you have any questions at all about our operations, or what you can do to help out, feel free to contact us!

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