What Happens When you Flush?

On the heels of the most recent sewage spill in the Black Warrior River, some people have asked a great question How does this happen?’.  So, I went to my resources and here’s what I found.


When you flush your toilet, where does it go?  If you are in a rural area, you might have a septic tank where your sewage is released into the ground near your dwelling.  You can read all about how septic tanks work here.

If you are in Birmingham, it is ported, via underground pipes, to one of nine waste water treatment plants.  It is carefully treated and then released back into our rivers.  According to the Jefferson County Environmental Services website:  “Your sewer system serves an estimated population of 480,000 residents of the County with the potential to treat 199 million gallons of sewage per day.”   (That’s a lot of poop!)  You can read up on how it is treated here. How Stuff Works


So, our sewage is released into the same rivers where our drinking water comes from?  Many times, yes! The Cahaba River and the Black Warrior Rivers are sources of Birmingham drinking water and include destinations for treated waste water.  Not at the same location, of course.

When the wastewater process malfunctions, raw sewage can dump into the river.   According to American Rivers, this is not uncommon. “Each year, more than 860 billion gallons of this vile brew escapes sewer systems across the country. That’s enough to flood all of Pennsylvania ankle-deep. It’s enough for every American to take one bath each week for an entire year.”  No, thank you!

Just this past week, two other major sewage spills were reported when 6 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the Bogue Chitto River after a levee breach in LA, and 600K gallons were spilled in the Huron River in MI.


How dangerous is untreated sewage? Early Americans routinely dumped raw sewage right into the rivers and streams to dispose of it.  What people didn’t realize was contaminated water led to significant health problems.  American Rivers reports: ‘Untreated human sewage teems with salmonella, hepatitis, dysentery, cryptosporidium, and many other infectious diseases. One hundred years ago, epidemics of these diseases helped limit the life expectancy of a U.S. citizen to about 50 years. Estimates vary for how many people sewage still sickens or kills each year, but they are all large.’

What can you do?  

#1) Flush ONLY natural waste and toilet paper down your toilets.  Diapers, rags, tampons, medicines and other trash don’t belong in our sewers.  As we saw this past week in Northport, trash can block filters and cause spills.

Storm water run off is also a significant problem and can wreck havoc on our sewer systems.  After a rain you frequently see plastic bags, cups and other trash flowing into the drains on our streets.  What can you do?  Pick up your trash and …..


#2) Plant trees!  Planting trees can help reduce water runoff into our sewers.  American Rivers states:  “planting trees, restoring wetlands, and creating green roofs are often the most cost-effective ways to expand the capacity of sewer systems. A single mature tree with a thirty-foot crown can keep 4,600 gallons of water out of the sewer each year.”


#3) Consider supporting your local river organizations by volunteering your time and/or money.  We have excellent choices around Birmingham including The Black Warrior Riverkeeper, The Cahaba Riverkeeper, The Cahaba River Society, Coosa Riverkeeper and Alabama Rivers Alliance.

Let’s work together to keep our rivers clean!

Bham Now
Bham Now
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