Collaborative Efforts to Address Harrisburg’s Combined Sewer Overflows: Part 1

Harrisburg’s Combined Sewer Overflow System and its Consequences

Nearly 60% of Harrisburg’s wastewater and stormwater control is through a combined sewer overflow (CSO) system, which is one of the oldest forms of sewer systems in the country. CSOs combine rainwater and wastewater during significant rain events, before treating it and releasing it into a nearby body of water, like the Susquehanna River. Many of the pipes within Harrisburg’s system date back to the early 1800s. At the time of its creation, this system was seen as a modern and convenient way to confront public health concerns related to disease and hygiene. However, modern knowledge reveals how it can be detrimental to our river.

Jamie Shallenberger

“I would describe combined sewer overflows as an unfortunate circumstance of history,” said Jamie Shallenberger, Manager of the Monitoring and Protection Program at the Susquehanna River Basic Commission (SRBC).

During heavier rainfall events, typically near an inch per hour or greater, storm- and wastewater brought to the treatment plant may overload the system, allowing untreated water to enter the Susquehanna River and Paxton Creek. According to Capital Region Water, which provides water, wastewater, and stormwater services to Harrisburg and six of the surrounding municipalities, they must consistently maximize the amount of flow coming into the treatment plant at all times, especially during heavier rainstorms, to prevent this from happening.

However, Ted Evgeniadis, Executive Director of the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association (LSRA) insists that even on dry-weather days the city is discharging untreated water into the Susquehanna.

“We have been monitoring bacteria levels for the past three years, and what we found is that there are very high concentrations of coliform and E.coli… the results are fairly alarming,” said Evgeniadis. “This is an environmental justice issue—a human health concern—and it is also a concern for fish, macroinvertebrates, and other aquatic life that comes in contact with this water.”

What is Being Done

When Harrisburg fell into state receivership in 2013 due to near-certain bankruptcy from its relationship with the Harrisburg Authority, it was decided that the operations of the sewer system, along with other utilities services, would no longer remain under city jurisdiction. It was at that time that Capital Region Water was created as a separate entity to control Harrisburg’s sewer and drinking water systems.

“For the years prior to 2013, the authority that ran the sewer system did not perform regular maintenance, so Capital Region Water is dealing with a lot of failed infrastructure and many pipes that are at a very high rate of failure,” said Evgeniadis. “What they are doing right now is working on all the maintenance that should have been going on for the last however many decades.”

Capital Region Water, with the help of SRBC, is in the process of developing a long-term control plan that manages Harrisburg’s CSOs to meet requirements brought up to them by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“We work in terms of outreach and education [at SRBC],” said Shallenberger. “We work with Capital Region Water on a number of technical work groups and through information sharing, along with other groups, to find ways to improve their stormwater management.”

According to EPA guidelines, whatever entity is in charge of a CSO system must be able to capture and treat at least 85% of the volume that travels through that sewer. Currently, Harrisburg’s CSO system is only capturing 53% of that volume.

While Capital Region Water’s strategic initiative team is still developing goals and public participation processes to confront this issue, including current projects to upgrade its pump station and provide necessary maintenance of pipes, they have an overall larger goal to manage stormwater across 100 acres of the city. This is a larger goal to implement green infrastructure projects that will intercept a majority of the rainfall before it even gets to the CSO.

“[Green infrastructure involves] implementing a rain garden, curb side extensions or bump outs, increasing tree canopy, building green infrastructure into our parks to manage stormwater from the surrounding neighborhood, and so on,” said Charlotte Katzenmoyer, CEO of Capital Region Water. “This program will go on for possibly 25 or 30 years.”

A lot of the tasks Capital Region Water is taking on, especially the green stormwater infrastructure projects, require collaboration to be completed successfully.

“We don’t own property, so we can’t just go in and build green stormwater infrastructure all over the city,” said Katzenmoyer, “So we have to rely on property owners that we are collaborating with to build. For example, we are doing a project with the YMCA, using their property to build stormwater infrastructure, which also helps manage their stormwater. We may even build a green wall on the entrance of the YMCA to educate the public about the problem we have and how we are going to solve it. There are many community partners we have to work with collaboratively on solutions.”

The LSRA is also making its contribution to the issue with the help of a professional engineer who assists them in providing other parties with technical assistance, along with acquiring legal intervention, represented by the Environmental Integrity Project, to quicken the process and provide the necessary legal expertise.

“Our involvement is simply to help fix this problem, and I would say that education is the most important thing at the moment,” said Evgeniadis. “However, it is also going to be a big push for people to really see this as the issue that it is. People again might turn a blind eye to it, but this is a huge problem. Harrisburg is the number one contributor of CSO in the entire Chesapeake region—they discharge more CSO than any other municipality in the entire state.”

Part 2 of this look at Harrisburg’s CSO problem and collaborative solutions underway will be posted in December.

RiverStewards is working with students at Millersville University on Susquehanna Storytelling– a series of blog articles, videos, and other means of educating people on what makes the Susquehanna River so special and important to the economy, the environment, and to our quality of life. If you are a college professor located at an institute of higher learning within the Susquehanna River watershed and would like to have your students involved in Susquehanna Storytelling, please contact Jessica Aiello by sending email to:

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the author or RiverStewards. All information presented here is as true and accurate to the person quoted as is possible.


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