What is wastewater, and why treat it?
We consider wastewater treatment as 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 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.
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 are an important priority:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why is Sewage Treatment Important?
Effective sewage treatment prevents a variety of ailments that can be spread by exposure to pathogens that can be present in untreated sewages, and thus helps prevent disease. Discharges of untreated sewage can contaminate groundwater and surface waters used for drinking, recreation, and fish and shellfish fisheries
Untreated sewage from failed conventional septic systems or sewage discharged directly into the environment can percolate into groundwater, contaminating drinking-water wells with pathogens. The discharge of untreated sewage to streams can spread disease through direct contact, making such streams unfit for forms of recreation that involve skin contact with the water such as swimming and boating. Disease can also spread by indirect (secondary) contact such as through contact with rodents or insects that received primary exposure and in turn harbor the pathogens. Discharged, untreated sewage also can damage the receiving streams’ ability to support healthy, living communities of aquatic organisms and can contaminate fisheries. Credit: The USGS Water Science School