T1, a combined sewer line that feeds into Rock Creek, a tributary of Frankford Creek. Photo by Chris Baker Evens.
T1, a combined sewer line that feeds into Rock Creek, a tributary of Frankford Creek. Photo by Chris Baker Evens.

Sewage is overflowing into Philly’s rivers. Is the city’s $2B+ fix working?

| December 3, 2023

Editor’s note: Delaware Currents, in partnership with Grid magazine and Chestnut Hill Local, spent several months examining Green City, Clean Waters. This reporting is the result of reviews of more than a decade of Philadelphia Water Department materials about the program, as well as interviews with more than a dozen engineers, clean water advocates and other experts about its efficacy.

In the early 1700s, botanist John Bartram surveyed his farmland abutting the banks of the Schuylkill River in what is now Southwest Philadelphia and had an idea: Build a garden for his beloved plants. 

Fast-forward to today, and the modern Bartram’s Garden is a National Historic Site, a gem of Philadelphia’s park system, and approaching its 300th anniversary.

But the landscape around Bartram, and indeed much of Philadelphia, looks vastly different than it did three centuries ago. 

Layers of development have turned Philadelphia into one of the nation’s densest cities, and a collision of socioeconomic factors have also made it one of its poorest.

Bartram’s executive director, Maitreyi Roy, sees incredible potential for the gardens to serve this complex metropolis. 

Maitreyi Roy, executive director of Bartram’s Garden. Photo by kdmorris photography.

Roy and her staff have prioritized reconnecting some of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in the city to the river, where residents can fish, boat, and otherwise relax. Ever since the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckonings that ensued in the summer of 2020, the work has taken on new urgency. Bartram’s is making progress as more neighbors utilize the park and access the river.

But there’s a problem. Dozens of times a year — basically every time there’s a decent rain — the water becomes off-limits. 

Pollution can enter a major river like the Schuylkill from a million places, but Roy is particularly worried about Mill Creek. Located just upstream from the garden, the creek was one of several in Philadelphia paved over and converted into a sewer in the 19th century. Now when it rains, the creek funnels raw sewage directly from the homes and businesses of Philadelphia and into the Schuylkill, adding E. coli and other threats to the water and making it unsafe for recreation.

“Our rivers are our lifelines,” Roy says. “I’m not saying all residents need to be paddling on the water. But for our city to be livable, our rivers need to remain clean.”

Green City, Clean Waters

Across Philadelphia, there are 163 more places like Mill Creek, where vast underground networks of aging sewers, designed in an era with less concern over the pollution of waterways, can overflow into the Schuylkill, Delaware, and Tacony and Cobbs Creeks.

The stakes are high.

In Philadelphia, the city is halfway through a 25-year agreement with regulators to reduce the billions of gallons of sewer water that pour into area rivers and creeks each year through a program known as Green City, Clean Waters.

And the Philadelphia Water Department has pioneered a nationally innovative approach, using “green infrastructure” such as rain gardens, green roofs and permeable surfaces to soak up stormwater, as opposed to more traditional, concrete-and-steel engineering methods like underground holding tanks.

For many reasons, the approach has won widespread acclaim since its implementation more than a decade ago.

In addition to reducing sewage overflows, green infrastructure can also beautify a neighborhood, offset summer heat and be less expensive than traditional infrastructure, proponents say. 

Lisa Jackson, a former EPA administrator under President Barack Obama, went so far as to deliver a speech in Philadelphia on the program’s merits as it kicked off in 2012.

“The techniques under this program will work with Mother Nature, and use natural environments to filter runoff and relieve pressure from the city’s 3,000 miles of traditional sewer infrastructure,” Jackson said. “It is our hope that lessons from Green City, Clean Waters will translate to other cities as well. We want to see the benefits of green infrastructure taking hold in other large metropolitan areas.”

Andy Kricun, former executive director of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority.

Climate change threatens to overtake progress

Critics of the approach have started to question just how well it’s working. 

The concern, they say, is whether the benefits of green infrastructure have been oversold, or at least overtaken by climate change. 

And the kicker is that the cost of the multi-billion-dollar program falls primarily on Philadelphians themselves, who are financing the program through increases to their water bills. If the city doesn’t get it right, Philadelphians will likely have to pay more in the future for a method that works better.

On paper, the Water Department is at this point hitting every single target that the EPA and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection are requiring of it.

The Water Department releases an annual report with data on sewage overflows into waterways. When adjusted for annual rainfall, the documents show the city has achieved about a 21 percent improvement from a decade ago.

Others question the targets themselves and whether the city is relying too heavily on green infrastructure. 

By design, the city primarily tracks success through modeling, tied to baseline weather conditions of 2006. Nick Pagon, a former Philadelphia School District teacher who became a clean water advocate after starting a boat-building nonprofit for kids in the city, believes the approach is already obsolete because of climate change, which is increasing the number of extreme rainfall events that exacerbate sewage overflows.

“The fine print is that they are meeting their mandated targets, but their mandated targets have nothing to do with the actual volume of overflows,” Pagon says. 

The nonprofit PennEnvironment shares his concerns. 

This summer, the group released a detailed report about Philadelphia’s sewer overflows. While Water Department documents estimate that Green City, Clean Waters has so far reduced three billion gallons of overflows during a typical year, the PennEnvironment report points out that Philadelphia still releases much more, anywhere from nine to 16 billion over the past half decade. In 2022, the report calculated, overflows made portions of the Schuylkill unsafe for recreation for 162 days, and for the Tacony, 128 days. 

John Rumpler, clean water director and senior attorney for PennEnvironment, says the nonprofit sees the value of green infrastructure but still believes the city needs to rethink its overall strategy, especially in light of climate change.

“Even though they’ve made progress, they’re falling short because there’s increased rainfall,” Rumpler says.

There are also questions about the long-term chances of success. 

To meet its overall goals, the city must create 9,500 acres of new green infrastructure by 2035. That’s more than the Wissahickon Valley, Pennypack, FDR, and Fairmount Parks combined. 

But by taking the total acreage of improvements so far and extrapolating to 2035 based on recent annual averages, our reporting found, the city is on pace to reach only 60 percent of its target.

The Water Department did not offer responses to questions for this article within a two-week deadline. The department would need one to two months, but did provide links to relevant documents.

Still, there’s an even more complicated, third perspective. Laura Toran, a hydrogeologist and professor at Temple University, is among a handful of local environmental experts with firsthand experience studying the effectiveness of green infrastructure.

On the whole, Toran says, it performs well for its primary purpose of keeping stormwater out of sewers, and thus sewage out of rivers. She adds there are indeed still thorny questions, such as to exactly what extent green infrastructure works, whether it captures runoff pollution like road salt, and whether there is ultimately enough “greenable” space in the city to complete its plan.

For Toran though, these questions miss the bigger picture. 

Echoed by other professionals, she’s seen the range of solutions any city can implement to deal with stormwater, and thinks whatever the shortfalls of green infrastructure may be, it’s worth prioritizing over the expensive, concrete ways of the past. 

In places like Europe and China, she notes, engineers acknowledge the approach can get swallowed up by major deluges, but are still doubling down as they endeavor to create a new paradigm. 

“It’s very complex, measuring success,” Toran said. “I was fascinated that [overseas experts] admitted that it’s not entirely successful, but you need to do it anyway or else things will get worse. I think that’s a really hard thing for the public to swallow.”

Regulators weigh in

Asked about the EPA’s current opinion of Green City, Clean Waters, the agency pointed out the city has met its targets thus far and said that the EPA routinely communicates with the city and DEP.

“EPA continues to have… discussions with PADEP and PWD regarding any challenges that may require PWD to re-evaluate their program,” the agency said.

When asked if the DEP has expressed any concerns about the program’s performance, the department responded in a statement, “No.”

If the agencies determine at any point the program is falling short, they have the authority to put new screws to the city. But the stakes are perhaps highest for Philadelphians, from the everyday ratepayer paying for the program, to those like Roy who look out over still-polluted waters and wonder if more can be done.

“To me, it’s really unfinished business,” Roy said. “It’s a long-term issue, but we can’t lose sight of it.”

Troubled waters in Germantown

When Leem Patton, 19, and his family moved from West Philly to townhomes in Germantown three years ago, they had no idea they were moving onto a street so prone to flooding that people sometimes have to swim from their cars to their front doors. 

After moving in, one of their new neighbors gave them a heads up that the block floods. 

But they’d learn firsthand soon enough. 

On July 6, 2020, Patton’s sister posted a video shot from her porch looking down at the intersection of Church Lane and Belfield Avenue below. Severe thunderstorms were passing through Philadelphia and floodwaters had completely submerged the intersection. They were now pushing several feet up the front steps of the home.

Belfield Avenue and Church Lane, where flooding is a frequent issue.

In the video, a red pickup truck plows through the water. Going the other way a minivan pushes a sedan, which appears to be stuck or disabled. 

Patton says that more than three years later, the family is in some ways used to it. Floods happen frequently, and one totaled his mother’s car. Now they know to move their vehicles to a higher elevation when a good rain is on the way. Still, it’s stressful.

“We think about it a lot, every time it rains bad,” Patton said.

Patton and his family aren’t alone. Flooding is a recurring problem in Germantown and parts of Mt. Airy. 

During Hurricane Irene in 2011, Deanna Compton, a 27-year-old mother of one, was driving home late at night when her vehicle became stuck in floodwaters at the intersection of Haines Street and Belfield Avenue, resulting in her death by drowning

Two years later, area residents told ABC6 they were fed up with flooding and basement sewage backups, which can occur when sewer mains are so filled with sewage and stormwater that they can force the mixture back up into homes.

Kelly O’Day, a retired environmental engineer, re-visits T1. Photo by Chris Baker Evens.

Kelly O’Day, a retired environmental engineer from East Mt. Airy, a neighborhood next to Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia, thinks more can be done to help them. The East Mt. Airy resident is something like a low-key crusader for green issues in the city, particularly sewers and plastic pollution.

The root of the flooding problem in the Northwest, he says, is the Wingohocking Creek.

Like Mill Creek in Southwest Philadelphia, the Wingohocking was covered up and converted to a sewer at the turn of the 20th century, snaking its way from what is now East Mt. Airy and across North Philadelphia before emptying into Frankford Creek (known as the Tacony at higher elevations). 

The sewer’s outfall pipe into the Frankford, known as “T14,” now releases more combined sewage into area waterways than any other. 

But O’Day also worries about smaller outfalls like “T1,” which discharges into tiny Rock Creek behind a Target store just over the border with Cheltenham.

“It’s the grossest outfall in the region,” O’Day says. “It takes a [big] drainage area of Philadelphia, and discharges it into this tiny little creek. T1 is like the hidden secret of the grossness of the combined sewer overflows.”

Combined sewer explained:

A “combined sewer” is one in which stormwater from the street is combined into the same pipes that carry sewage from homes and businesses. Predominantly found in older cities across the United States, combined sewers can overwhelm sewage treatment plants during heavy rainstorms, so excess volume is released via “outfall pipes” into area waterways. Combined sewers are thus a major source of water pollution and a safety hazard. About 60 percent of Philadelphia is served by combined sewers, but all Philadelphians help pay for fixes through their water bills.

O’Day does think green infrastructure can help to reduce sewer overflows. But, he says, it has its limits and believes more traditional infrastructure is still needed to solve acute problems like those in Germantown.

For proof, O’Day points to a map with red dots marking the street intersections that repeatedly flood within the Wingohocking watershed. 

These choke points primarily fall in more upstream areas in Germantown, not lower-lying areas like Logan and Wayne Junction where one might expect. That’s because, O’Day says, in the mid-20th century Philadelphia performed a massive expansion of the sewer lines running west from the Frankford, but stopped short of redoing the entire watershed in the 1980s.

“They may not have had the money to upgrade the upper Wingohocking,” O’Day says. “Up to the edge of the red dots.”

O’Day says he knows costs remain a limiting factor for PWD’s operations. But he says green infrastructure isn’t solving the pressing problems in Germantown — the city itself estimates $8.72 million in property damages a year — and time is being lost.

Some of the debris at T1. Photo by Chris Baker Evens.

In its original 2011 planning document for Green City, Clean Waters, PWD estimated about $2.4 billion in investments under the plan citywide. The lion’s share, about $1.7 billion, would go to green infrastructure. 

But it would also spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade its three wastewater plants to handle more sewage and reline pipes to keep sewage out of the Tacony and Cobbs Creeks. And, it would set aside $420 million into a “flexible” spending category for green or concrete infrastructure, “whichever proves more efficient as the program evolves.”

In a response to the PennEnvironment sewer report this year, the Water Department said it is committed to spending “over $4.5 billion in capital program infrastructure investments,” through 2029, with $1 billion dedicated to combined sewers.

The Water Department has also not been absent in Germantown.

Emaleigh Doley, executive director of the Germantown United Community Development Corp., says the Water Department has been “doing a lot of work” in the area, including installing green infrastructure and meeting with community members. 

She thinks it’s perhaps a bigger problem than the department can solve alone, as there are also concerns about the affordability of flood insurance, the lack of disclosures of flood risk during real estate transactions and even the very question of whether some homes should have been built in what amounts to an unmarked flood zone in the first place.

“It’s a big enough problem that it’s not going to have any easy solutions,” Doley said.

Indeed, the Water Department has studied the Germantown flooding problem and in 2019 released a report laying out potential solutions. 

It calculated that more traditional infrastructure options, such as a series of underground storage basins or a five-mile-long storage tunnel running under Chew Avenue, could reduce flood depths by as much as 80 percent and eliminate up to two-thirds of basement backups.

But, estimated costs for the projects ranged from $384 million to $585 million, which would eat up the entirety of the city’s flexible budget under Green City, Clean Waters. 

The Water Department did not respond by publication to a question about the status of its plans in Germantown but did provide a copy of a December 2022 request for proposals seeking “the first level of conceptual design for the Wingohocking Relief Sewer Tunnel, which extends from the flood prone areas in Germantown to the Tacony Creek.”

Money is the overriding issue

For Howard Neukrug, a former commissioner of the Water Department who spearheaded the creation of Green City, Clean Waters, money is the defining, inescapable factor. 

As the city evaluated its options while creating the program, he says the Water Department did look at more traditional options, such as digging massive underground tunnels. Cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., have spent billions of dollars on such projects, successfully storing hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage-laden stormwater during deluges, then pumping it back to the surface for treatment during drier days.

But in Philadelphia, those options had a price tag that would likely approach $10 billion in today’s dollars, several-fold more than the green infrastructure would cost, Neukrug says.

Going down that path would have added sharply to affordability concerns in a city where residents are already facing annual double-digit rate increases on their water bills and have a history of delinquency. 

“All the tunnels have nicknames. Ours was ‘the 100-year-tunnel,’” Neukrug said. “That’s how long it would take for us to be able to, in a city like Philadelphia, find the $10 billion dollars, put it in the rate structure, and have people pay for this thing.”

Building large tunnels, Neukrug adds, can also greatly disrupt urban life during their construction, require heavy energy usage to operate, come with none of the benefits of green infrastructure, and also become susceptible to obsolescence wrought by climate change.

“You look at the green infrastructure solution, and you say, ‘While you’re designing the tunnel, we’re planting trees,’” Neukrug said. “We get benefits from day one.”

But Pagon, the former boatbuilder-turned-water advocate, doesn’t believe that Philadelphia is doing the best it can. He says one need look no further than just across the Delaware, to Camden, N.J.

Kelly O’Day, a retired environmental engineer.

A tale of two cities

When discussions began about a decade ago between the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Camden about its own combined sewer problems, Andy Kricun, then executive director of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, says there was a great blueprint to follow: Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters, which was formalized just a few years earlier.

“When [the program] first came out, it was groundbreaking,” Kricun said. “Nobody had been thinking about this idea… it was really smart, a game changer.”

Kricun contacted Neukrug and others at the Water Department to learn about their approach, and says the Camden authority, which is responsible for handling and treating sewage from all of Camden County, in many ways copied it.

But there were a few key differences.

Most significant was how Camden measured success. In Philadelphia, the primary metric is the installation of “Greened Acres.” It’s essentially a modeling exercise, where each piece of green infrastructure is designed to capture a certain amount of stormwater. 

Install enough acres, the model shows, and the city will have reduced sewage overflows by an amount acceptable to regulators.

Camden, Kricun says, prioritized eliminating sewage flooding in homes as well as combined sewage overflows into the river, measured by devices that detect actual overflows from the sewers.

“In order to do that, we looked at gray (traditional) infrastructure improvements as the centerpiece of our program with green infrastructure being a complementary feature,” Kricun says. “PWD’s is the reverse — green infrastructure is the centerpiece, complemented by gray infrastructure.”

Camden also put nets on the end of all of their overflow pipes to capture sewage sludge as well as floating plastics, with sensors that indicate when they’ve been impacted. The nets allow water through but capture everything in the sewage stream bigger than a half-inch in diameter.

Each of these goals came with hard data or dependable community feedback to indicate they were working.

For these reasons, Pagon and other advocates on the Pennsylvania side of the river hold up Camden’s approach as superior.

“Camden is doing much better for a variety of reasons,” Pagon said.

Kricun doesn’t go that far. Philadelphia is a different beast, he points out. It is much larger, and thus more costly to fix.

“The Green City, Clean Waters plan has already done a great deal of good for water quality in the Philadelphia region and will be even more beneficial when it has been completed,” Kricun says.

Experts like Toran, the Temple University hydrogeologist, say that perceived improvements can have significant maintenance issues and costs.

In Philadelphia, there are more than 160 sewer outfalls, compared to 28 in Camden, and many are in potentially tricky locations to maintain, like the Delaware River.

Yet in interviews, even experts supportive of Green City, Clean Waters cautiously suggest it merits a closer inspection.

For Kricun, a pertinent question is whether Philadelphia’s use of 2006 as a baseline for its models will hold up, as climate scientists predict continued increases in extreme rainfall. He also has equity concerns. In Camden, green infrastructure installation was prioritized in frequently flooded environmental justice communities. But Philadelphia views installation at any location equally.

“[Green City, Clean Waters] could be improved upon to address climate change, incorporate equity considerations and achieve even better water quality outcomes,” Kricun says.

There’s also the question of whether or not there’s even enough room to put about 9,500 green acres in Philadelphia.

Under their 25-year agreement with regulators, installation is weighted toward the tail end. Philadelphia hit its target of about 2,100 acres at the 10-year mark, but that left 7,400 to go. 

At that rate, and coupled with the 2,863 acres it already has, Philadelphia would be on track to install about 5,700 acres by 2035, less than 60 percent of the total target.

“We have a major city with thousands of acres of impervious surface, so to implement and make this work, you need a lot of green,” said Robert Traver, an environmental engineer and Director of Villanova University’s Center for Resilient Water Systems.

For some, those critical of the program, these add up to serious questions about the program at its halfway mark. With the city spending billions on a program that may not be working, waiting another decade amounts to lost time and money. 

Rumpler, with PennEnvironment, says the program’s stated $2.4 billion price tag is probably even too low, and that state and federal lawmakers, along with suburban communities that send sewage to Philadelphia for treatment, should all be contributing more money to help pay for it.

(The PennEnvironment report noted that a number of suburban communities are permitted to send as much as 125 million gallons of wastewater per day into Philadelphia’s sewage system. That is in addition to 121 “significant industrial users” that also send wastewater to the city’s sewer system.)

“I think it’s a mistake to start debating how much of that $2.4 billion should be green and how much should be [traditional] infrastructure,” Rumpler said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they need to just double that number, at a minimum, to get to the point where they’re really dramatically ratcheting down and ideally eliminating their sewage overflows.”

But Neukrug says many of these criticisms miss a bigger picture. 

The Philadelphia Water Department is an extremely forward-looking organization, he says. There is a century of unprecedented challenges ahead. With climate change bearing down and sea levels rising, salt water intrusion could potentially threaten the very safety of the city’s drinking water and require extremely expensive upgrades to fix.

Residents of the heavily impoverished city already face affordability problems. Lurking are the threats of unregulated chemicals and lead pipes.

In other words, Philadelphia has a lot on its plate, and limited dollars to go around.

From this perspective, Green City, Clean Waters is the right tool: an innovative and relatively low-cost solution that returns value to the community in more ways than one. 

Neukrug says although its exact effectiveness can be tough to pin down, that doesn’t mean it should be abandoned at halftime. 

It has too much merit, he argues, and the Water Department can do more in 2035 if it finds it’s not where it expected to be.

“It’s hard to say who is wrong or right either way,” Neukrug says. “We’re supporting the growth of a sustainable city… And that’s it, that’s the spot. That’s environmental justice, fairness and affordability.”

Kyle Bagenstose

Kyle Bagenstose

Kyle Bagenstose is a freelance environmental reporter based in Philadelphia. Previously, he was a national investigative and environmental reporter for USA TODAY, and before that, an environmental and investigative reporter for the Bucks County Courier Times and Intelligencer newspapers in the Philadelphia suburbs. He specializes in water, chemicals, climate change and environmental justice topics, and has won numerous national and state awards for his work. He received his BA in journalism from Temple University.

1 Comment

  1. Sharon Furlong on January 10, 2024 at 4:15 pm

    Always a pleasure to read you Kyle! I miss you. As for this particular article: well done. This is a massively complicated issue and your presentation was clear, well organized and easy to digest. And this kind of digestion doesn’t result is something to burden a sewage treatment plant!

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