Recreation and Excrement in the Same River
The City of Richmond has come a long way since it first opened up the pipes allowing untreated excrement to flow into the river all of the time. Unbeknownst to the majority of its residents, sewage still floods directly into the troubled James during heavy rainstorms. Richmond’s outdated combined sewer, drains storm water and wastewater into one network, and is easily overwhelmed in heavy rainstorms. When too much water enters the system, the city simply reroutes the excess into the river, resulting in raw, untreated sewage flowing directly into the water where people swim, fish, and kayak.
The Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is well aware of this problem, and has been working for years to fix it. Over the past decade, the DPU has spent $120 million on upgrading the plant, and has invested close to $370 million since 1991 in upgrades. The river has responded well to these improvements, earning a B- rating in river health from the James River Association (JRA) in 2015 for the first time since the JRA began their “State of the James” reports in 2007.
On May 5, 2017, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that in 2015, nearly 2.7 billion gallons of sewer overflow was released into the river. The wastewater treatment plant usually treats 45 million gallons per day, with 60 times that going directly into the river without being treated in one year.
There is a long way to go still, but as Robert Steidel, the city’s director of public utilities, said in the same article, “It just takes time to rebuild a city from underneath.”