Recent archaeological discoveries have shown that some of the earliest sewer systems were developed 2500 BC in the ancient city of Harappa. The primitive sewers were carved in the ground alongside buildings. This discovery reveals the conceptual understanding of waste disposal by the early civilizations.
The earliest sewers were designed to carry street runoff away from inhabited areas and into surface waterways without treatment. Open sewers, consisting of gutters and urban streambeds, were common worldwide before the 20th century. In the majority of developed countries, large efforts were made during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to cover the formerly open sewers, converting them to closed systems with cast iron, steel, or concrete pipes, masonry, and concrete arches. Most sewage collection systems of the 19th and early to mid 20th century used single-pipe systems that collect both sewage and urban runoff from streets and roofs. This type of collection system is referred to as a combined sewer system. The rationale for combining the two was that it would be cheaper to build just a single system. Most cities at that time did not have sewage treatment plants, so there was no perceived public health advantage in constructing a separate "surface water sewerage" (the term used in the UK) or "storm sewer" (the term used in the U.S.) system.
When constructed, combined sewer systems were typically sized to carry three to 160 times the average dry weather sewage flows. It is generally infeasible to treat the volume of mixed sewage and surface runoff flowing in a combined sewer during peak runoff events caused by snowmelt or convective precipitation. As cities built sewage treatment plants, those plants were typically built to treat only the volume of sewage flowing during dry weather. Relief structures were installed in the collection system to bypass untreated sewage mixed with surface runoff during wet weather, protecting sewage treatment plants from damage caused if peak flows reached the headworks.
These relief structures, called storm-water regulators (in American English - or combined sewer overflows in British English) are constructed in combined sewer systems to divert flows in excess of the peak design flow of the sewage treatment plant. Combined sewers are built with control sections establishing stage-discharge or pressure differential-discharge relationships which may be either predicted or calibrated to divert flows in excess of sewage treatment plant capacity. A leaping weir may be used as a regulating device allowing typical dry-weather sewage flow rates to fall into an interceptor sewer to the sewage treatment plant, but causing a major portion of higher flow rates to leap over the interceptor into the diversion outfall. Alternatively, an orifice may be sized to accept the sewage treatment plant design capacity and cause excess flow to accumulate above the orifice until it overtops a side-overflow weir to the diversion outfall.
CSO statistics may be confusing because the term may describe either the number of events or the number of relief structure locations at which such events may occur. A CSO event, as the term is used in American English, occurs when mixed sewage and stormwater are bypassed from a combined sewer system control section into a river, stream, lake, or ocean through a designed diversion outfall, but without treatment. Overflow frequency and duration varies both from system to system, and from outfall to outfall, within a single combined sewer system. Some CSO outfalls discharge infrequently, while others activate every time it rains.
CSOs should not be confused with sanitary sewer overflows. Sanitary sewer overflows are caused by sewer system obstructions, damage, or flows in excess of sewer capacity (rather than treatment plant capacity.) Sanitary sewer overflows may occur at any low spot in the sewer system rather than at the CSO relief structures. Absence of a diversion outfall often causes sanitary sewer overflows to flood residential structures and/or flow over traveled road surfaces before reaching natural drainage channels. Sanitary sewer overflows may cause greater health risks and environmental damage than CSOs if they occur during dry weather when there is no precipitation runoff to dilute and flush away sewage pollutants.
The storm water component contributes pollutants to CSO; but a major faction of pollution is the first foul flush of accumulated biofilm and sanitary solids scoured from the dry weather wetted perimeter of combined sewers during peak flow turbulence. Each storm is different in the quantity and type of pollutants it contributes. For example, storms that occur in late summer, when it has not rained for a while, have the most pollutants. Pollutants like oil, grease, fecal coliform from pet and wildlife waste, and pesticides get flushed into the sewer system. In cold weather areas, pollutants from cars, people and animals also accumulate on hard surfaces and grass during the winter and then are flushed into the sewer systems during heavy spring rains.
About 860 communities in the US have combined sewer systems, serving about 40 million people. CSO discharges during heavy storms can cause serious water pollution problems in these communities. Pollutants from CSO discharges can include bacteria and other pathogens, toxic chemicals, and debris. These pollutants have also been linked with antimicrobial resistance, posing serious public health concerns. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a policy in 1994 requiring municipalities to make improvements to reduce or eliminate CSO-related pollution problems. It is managed by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program. The policy defined water quality parameters for the safety of an ecosystem; it allowed for action that are site specific to control CSOs in most practical way for community; it made sure the CSO control is not beyond a community’s budget; and allowed water quality parameters to be flexible, based upon the site specific conditions. The CSO Control Policy required all states to have ″nine minimum controls″ in place by January 1, 1997, to decrease the effects of sewage overflow by making small improvements in existing processes. In 2000 Congress amended the Clean Water Act to require the municipalities to comply with the EPA policy.
The United Kingdom Environment Agency identified unsatisfactory intermittent discharges and issued an Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive requiring action to limit pollution from combined sewer overflows. In 2009 the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment adopted a Canada-wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent including national standards to (1) remove floating material from combined sewer overflows, (2) prevent combined sewer overflows during dry weather, and (3) prevent development or redevelopment from increasing frequency of combined sewer overflows.
Municipalities in the US have been undertaking projects to mitigate CSO since the 1990s. For example, prior to 1990, the quantity of untreated combined sewage discharged annually to lakes, rivers and streams in southeast Michigan was estimated at more than 30 billion US gallons (110,000,000 m3) per year. In 2005, with nearly $1 billion of a planned $2.4 billion CSO investment put into operation, untreated discharges have been reduced by more than 20 billion US gallons (76,000,000 m3) per year. This investment that has yielded an 85 percent reduction in CSO has included numerous sewer separation, CSO storage and treatment facilities and wastewater treatment plant improvements constructed by local and regional governments.
Many other areas in the US are undertaking similar projects (see, for example, in the Puget Sound of Washington). Cities like Pittsburgh, Seattle, Philadelphia, and New York are focusing on these projects partly because they are under federal consent decrees to solve their CSO issues. Both up-front penalties and stipulated penalties are utilized by EPA and state agencies to enforce CSO-mitigating initiatives and the efficiency of their schedules. Municipalities' sewage departments, engineering and design firms, and environmental organizations offer different approaches to potential solutions.
Some US cities have undertaken sewer separation projects — building a second piping system for all or part of the community. In many of these projects, cities have been able to separate only portions of their combined systems. High costs or physical limitations may preclude building a completely separate system. In 2011 Washington, D.C. separated its sewers in four small neighborhoods at a cost of $11 million. (The project cost also includes improvements to the drinking water piping system.)
Another solution is to build a CSO storage facility, such as a tunnel that can store flow from many sewer connections. Because a tunnel can share capacity among several outfalls, it can reduce the total volume of storage that must be provided for a specific number of outfalls. Storage tunnels store combined sewage but do not treat it. When the storm is over, the flows are pumped out of the tunnel and sent to a wastewater treatment plant. One of the main concerns with CSO storage is the time it is stored before it is released. Without careful management of this time the water in the CSO storage facility runs the risk of going septic.
Washington, D.C. is building underground storage capacity as its primary strategy to address CSOs. As of 2011, the city is building a deep storage tunnel, adjacent to the Anacostia River, that will reduce overflows to the river by 98 percent, and 96 percent system-wide. (The city's overall "Clean Rivers" project, projected to cost $2.6 billion, includes other components, such as reducing stormwater flows.) The South Boston CSO Storage Tunnel is a similar project, completed in 2011.
Some cities have expanded their basic sewage treatment capacity to handle some or all of the CSO volume. In 2002 litigation forced the city of Toledo, Ohio to double its treatment capacity and build a storage basin in order to eliminate most overflows. The city also agreed to study ways to reduce stormwater flows into the sewer system. (See Reducing stormwater flows.)
Retention treatment basins or large concrete tanks that store and treat combined sewage are another solution. These underground structures can range in storage and treatment capacity from 2 million US gallons (7,600 m3) to 120 million US gallons (450,000 m3) of combined sewage. While each facility is unique, a typical facility operation is as follows. Flows from the overloaded sewers are pumped into a basin that is divided into compartments. The first flush compartment captures and stores flows with the highest level of pollutants from the first part of a storm. These pollutants include motor oil, sediment, road salt, and lawn chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) that are picked up by the stormwater as it runs off roads and lawns. The flows from this compartment are stored and sent to the wastewater treatment plant when there is capacity in the interceptor sewer after the storm. The second compartment is a treatment or flow-through compartment. The flows are disinfected by injecting sodium hypochlorite, or bleach, as they enter this compartment. It then takes about 20‑30 minutes for the flows to move to the end of the compartment. During this time, bacteria are killed and large solid materials settle out. At the end of the compartment, any remaining sanitary trash is skimmed off the top and the treated flows are discharged into the river or lake.
Screening and disinfection facilities treat CSO without ever storing it. Called "flow-through" facilities, they use fine screens to remove solids and sanitary trash from the combined sewage. Flows are injected with sodium hypochlorite for disinfection and mixed as they travel through a series of fine screens to remove debris. The fine screens have openings that range in size from 4 to 6 mm, or a little less than a quarter inch. The flow is sent through the facility at a rate that provides enough time for the sodium hypochlorite to kill bacteria. All of the materials removed by the screens are then sent to the sewage treatment plant through the interceptor sewer.
Communities may implement low impact development techniques to reduce flows of stormwater into the collection system. This includes:constructing new and renovated streets, parking lots and sidewalks with interlocking stones, permeable paving and pervious concrete
installing green roofs on buildings
installing bioretention systems, also called rain gardens, in landscaped areas
Rainwater harvesting equipment collects runoff from building roofs during wet weather for irrigating landscapes and gardens during dry weather
Graywater collection and use on site reduces sewage discharges at all times
CSO mitigating initiatives that are solely composed of sewer system reconstruction are referred to as gray infrastructure, while techniques like permeable pavement and rainwater harvesting are referred to as green infrastructure. Conflict often occurs between a municipality's sewage authority and its environmentally active organizations between gray and green infrastructural plans.
The 2004 EPA Report to Congress on CSO's provides a review of available technologies to mitigate CSO impacts.
Recent technological advances in sensing and control have enabled the implementation of Real Time Decision Support Systems (RT-DSS) for CSO mitigation. Through the use of internet of things technology and cloud computing, CSO events can now be mitigated by dynamically adjusting setpoints for movable gates, pump stations, and other actuated assets in sewers and storm water management systems. Similar technology, called adaptive traffic control is used to control the flow of vehicles through traffic lights. RT-DSS systems take advantage of storm temporal and spatial variability as well as varying concentration times due to diverse land uses across the sewershed to coordinate and optimize control assets. By maximizing storage and conveyance RT-DSS are able to minimize overflows using existing infrastructure. Successful implementations of RT-DSS have been carried out throughout the United States and Europe.
As a product of the Industrial Revolution, many cities in Europe and North America grew in the 19th century, frequently leading to crowding and increasing concerns about public health. As part of a trend of municipal sanitation programs in the late 19th and 20th centuries, many cities constructed extensive sewer systems to help control outbreaks of disease such as typhoid and cholera. Initially these systems discharged sewage directly to surface waters without treatment. As pollution of water bodies became a concern, cities added sewage treatment plants to their systems. Most cities in the Western world added more expensive systems for sewage treatment in the early 20th century.
As Britain was the first country to industrialize, it was also the first to experience the disastrous consequences of major urbanisation and was the first to construct a sewerage system as we know it today to mitigate the resultant unsanitary conditions. Joseph Bazalgette designed an extensive underground sewerage system that diverted waste to the Thames Estuary, downstream of the main centre of population. Six main interceptor sewers, totalling almost 135 miles (217 km) in length, were constructed. The intercepting sewers, constructed between 1859 and 1865, were fed by 450 miles (720 km) of main sewers that, in turn, conveyed the contents of some 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of smaller local sewers. With only minor modifications, Bazalgette's engineering achievement remains the basis for sewerage design up into the present day.
In France, the Paris cholera epidemic of 1832 sharpened the public awareness of the necessity for some sort of drainage system to deal with sewage and waster water in a better and healthier way since the Seine received up to 100,000 cubic meters of wastewater per day. Between 1865 and 1920 Eugene Belgrand led the development of a large scale system for water supply and wastewater management. By 1894 laws were passed which made drainage mandatory. The treatment of Paris sewage, though, was left to natural devices as 5,000 hectares of land were used to spread the waste out to be naturally purified.
The image of the sewer recurs in European culture as they were often used as hiding places or routes of escape by the scorned or the hunted, including partisans and resistance fighters in World War II. Fighting erupted in the sewers during the Battle of Stalingrad. The only survivors from the Warsaw Uprising and Warsaw Ghetto made their final escape through city sewers. Some have commented that the engravings of imaginary prisons by Piranesi were inspired by the Cloaca Maxima, one of the world's earliest sewers.
There is in the UK a legal difference between a storm sewer and a surface water sewer. You do not have a right of connection to a storm sewer under section 106 of the water Industry Act. These are normally the pipe line that discharges to a watercourse, downstream of a combined sewer overflow. It takes the excess flow from a combined sewer. A surface water sewer conveys rainwater; legally you have a right of connection for your rainwater to this public sewer. A public storm water sewer can discharge to a public surface water, but not the other way around, without a legal change in sewer status by the water company.
The theme of traveling through, hiding, or even residing in combined sewers is a common plot device in media. Famous examples of sewer dwelling are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Stephen King's It, Les Miserables, The Third Man, Ladyhawke, Mimic, The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, and Jet Set Radio Future. The Todd Strasser novel Y2K-9: the Dog Who Saved the World is centered around a dog thwarting terroristic threats to electronically sabotage American sewage treatment plants.
A well-known urban legend, the sewer alligator, is that of giant alligators or crocodiles residing in combined sewers, especially of major metropolitan areas. Two public sculptures in New York depict an alligator dragging a hapless victim into a manhole.
Alligators have been known to get into combined storm sewers in the southeastern United States. Closed-circuit television by a sewer repair company captured an alligator in a combined storm sewer on tape.