Wastewater Treatment Water Use

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Wastewater is used water. It includes substances such as human waste, food scraps, oils, soaps and chemicals. In homes, this includes water from sinks, showers, bathtubs, toilets, washing machines and dishwashers. Businesses and industries also contribute their share of used water that must be cleaned.

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What is wastewater, and why treat it?

Aerial view of a sewage treatment plant.

The Central Wastewater Treatment Plant, Nashville, Tennessee.

We consider wastewater treatment as a water use because it is so interconnected with the other uses of water. Much of the water used by homes, industries, and businesses must be treated before it is released back to the environment.

If the term "wastewater treatment" is confusing to you, you might think of it as "sewage treatment." Nature has an amazing ability to cope with small amounts of water wastes and pollution, but it would be overwhelmed if we didn't treat the billions of gallons of wastewater and sewage produced every day before releasing it back to the environment. Treatment plants reduce pollutants in wastewater to a level nature can handle.

Wastewater also includes storm runoff. Although some people assume that the rain that runs down the street during a storm is fairly clean, it isn't. Harmful substances that wash off roads, parking lots, and rooftops can harm our rivers and lakes.

 

Why Treat Wastewater?

It's a matter of caring for our environment and for our own health. There are a lot of good reasons why keeping our water clean is an important priority:

FISHERIES: Clean water is critical to plants and animals that live in water. This is important to the fishing industry, sport fishing enthusiasts, and future generations.

WILDLIFE HABITATS: Our rivers and ocean waters teem with life that depends on shoreline, beaches and marshes. They are critical habitats for hundreds of species of fish and other aquatic life. Migratory water birds use the areas for resting and feeding.

RECREATION AND QUALITY OF LIFE: Water is a great playground  for us all. The scenic and recreational values of our waters are reasons many people choose to live where they do. Visitors are drawn to water activities such as swimming, fishing, boating and picnicking.

HEALTH CONCERNS: If it is not properly cleaned, water can carry disease. Since we live, work and play so close to water, harmful bacteria have to be removed to make water safe.

 

Effects of wastewater pollutants

Stormsewer flowing both storm flow and sewage overflow during a major storm.

Epic September 2009 flooding around Atlanta, Georgia. An overflowing sewer on Riverside Road, Roswell, Georgia. Likely this is a storm sewer, designed to carry stormwater runoff off of streets, that cannot handle the volume of runoff.
In older sections of Atlanta there are combined sewer systems that are sewers that are designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. These overflows, called combined sewer overflows (CSOs) contain not only stormwater but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris. They are a major water pollution concern for the approximately 772 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer systems (EPA). The City of Atlanta is spending about $3 billion dollars to put in separate storm and waste systems in the metro Atlanta area. (Credit: Alan Cressler, USGS)

If wastewater is not properly treated, then the environment and human health can be negatively impacted. These impacts can include harm to fish and wildlife populations, oxygen depletion, beach closures and other restrictions on recreational water use, restrictions on fish and shellfish harvesting and contamination of drinking water. Environment Canada provides some examples of pollutants that can be found in wastewater and the potentially harmful effects these substances can have on ecosystems and human health:

  • Decaying organic matter and debris can use up the dissolved oxygen in a lake so fish and other aquatic biota cannot survive;
  • Excessive nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen (including ammonia), can cause eutrophication, or over-fertilization of receiving waters, which can be toxic to aquatic organisms, promote excessive plant growth, reduce available oxygen, harm spawning grounds, alter habitat and lead to a decline in certain species;
  • Chlorine compounds and inorganic chloramines can be toxic to aquatic invertebrates, algae and fish;
  • Bacteria, viruses and disease-causing pathogens can pollute beaches and contaminate shellfish populations, leading to restrictions on human recreation, drinking water consumption and shellfish consumption;
  • Metals, such as mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium and arsenic can have acute and chronic toxic effects on species.
  • Other substances such as some pharmaceutical and personal care products, primarily entering the environment in wastewater effluents, may also pose threats to human health, aquatic life and wildlife.

 

Wastewater treatment

The major aim of wastewater treatment is to remove as much of the suspended solids as possible before the remaining water, called effluent, is discharged back to the environment. As solid material decays, it uses up oxygen, which is needed by the plants and animals living in the water.

"Primary treatment" removes about 60 percent of suspended solids from wastewater. This treatment also involves aerating (stirring up) the wastewater, to put oxygen back in. Secondary treatment removes more than 90 percent of suspended solids.

 

Learn more about the wastewater treatment process and the uses of reclaimed wastewater.