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Storm Ida Pushes Hundreds Of Millions Of Gallons Of Untreated Water Into Rivers And Streams

Hurricane Ida Flooding
Tony Spinelli
Connecticut Public
The view from the Meriden green as the Harbor Brook flooded the area because of Hurricane Ida.

Heavy rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Ida caused massive stress on the state’s wastewater infrastructure. The National Weather Service reported more than 8 inches of rain in Stamford, Clinton, Uncasville, North Madison and Seymour. Elsewhere in the state, totals ranged from 3 inches to more than 7 inches of rain.

In many cities, stormwater goes into combined pipes that also take in household waste. When it rains a lot, all that water needs to flow somewhere. In order for it to not backup into homes and businesses, water officials across the state instead divert untreated stormwater and sewage into rivers and streams.

While the total amount of untreated water that got diverted was not immediately available, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said Thursday that Ida could result in untreated runoff volumes that “could be up to hundreds of millions of gallons statewide.”

Major overflows were reported across the state, including in and around Bridgeport, Hartford, Stamford and New Haven.

Nick Salemi, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan District Authority, which manages water around Hartford, said in a text, “No system is designed to take that much water in that short of a time period. It’s the third major storm in a few weeks.”

As Ida brought tornadoes to New Jersey and major flooding that caused loss of life in Connecticut and the region this week, the impacts of climate change from intense storms are becoming increasingly apparent in the Northeast.

“We really need to start focusing on these storm events, and we need to accept the fact that they’re going to be worse,” said Bill Lucey, Long Island Soundkeeper, with the environmental advocacy group Save the Sound.

In addition to the physical hazards presented by flooding and rapidly rising water tables, Lucey said heavy rain can also push pollutants into overwhelmed sewage systems.

“All the nutrients, fertilizer, any kind of pollutants, any of the stuff from the roads: asphalt pieces, chunks of your roof which are made out of shingles, antifreeze, hydraulic fluid,” he said. “All that stuff ends up going into our streams.”

Because of the large-scale water contamination, state environmental and public health officials Thursday urged residents to avoid “direct contact with surface water” in areas in close proximity to drainage pipes and said residents should not swim, fish or paddle in those areas.

Bridgeport, Hartford, Waterbury, Middletown, Meriden, Wallingford, Stamford, Norwalk, Norwich, and the greater New Haven were all listed in the state’s advisory.

Lucey said stormwater runoff is the number one water quality impediment in the state. But he said there are ways cities and individual residents can make a difference.

In addition to larger scale stormwater management projects like one underway by the MDC, Lucey said homeowners can try to redirect some rain flow away from stressed sewage pipes.

“What an individual homeowner can do is try to intercept that runoff through rain gardens,” Lucey said. “Someplace where the water — instead of it running down concrete or pavement into a catchment basin and a stream [and] bringing all that pollution — it gets intercepted.”

“What these rain gardens do is they slow the water, they put it back into the ground,” Lucey said. “The plants that are in them will suck up the pollutants and the nutrients.”

Lucey said he hopes more towns encourage the growth of rain gardens locally by forming stormwater authorities.

Gov. Ned Lamont authorized municipalities to create these agencies earlier this year, which his office said would allow cities and towns to afford green infrastructure and resiliency investments.

Lucey said cities like New London have formed authorities to study stormwater runoff issues. And that places like New Haven have put out rain gardens, which are proving effective.

“If you can put hundreds or thousands of these structures all around the state to soak up that rainwater, instead of shooting it down the road into a stream, we’re going to move a lot less pollution,” he said.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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