Essay | Phila-smell-phia: How one city is finding that climate change really stinks

Muddy brown waters fill what is presumably streets and lower levels of a parking garage, which stands behind a bank of trees. Two mid-height office buildings are in the background

Flooding took over the northeast after Tropical Storm Ida in early September 2021. These floodwaters are in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia's neighbor to the northwest. (Michael M Stokes/Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0)

Related Topics:
Architecture, Climate, Infrastructure, Policy, Sustainability, Water

While many of us have long been able to turn our backs on climate change, soon we might need to hold our noses, too. Let me explain.

In the days following then-Tropical Storm Ida, I studied its catastrophic impact on the region I call home — Philadelphia — from 140 miles away at my university in Washington, D.C. My social media feeds were filled with dystopian images of flooded below-ground highways, bridges nearly submerged by water, and residential streets that looked a lot more like Venice than the Northeastern American city.  

One visual stood out to me in particular — a Twitter video, below, of so-called “Vine Street swimmers” jumping into the submerged expressway in a characteristically unhinged Philly-fashion, despite officials’ warnings to stay out of the water. My inner germophobe reeled: gross.

It turns out that my casual disgust was worthy of more attention. I took it upon myself to do something I never thought I’d do: to research the inner workings of my city’s sewage system.

What I found was fittingly unsavory: Tropical Storm Ida was another reminder of the intense pressure put on Philadelphia’s centuries-old sewage system by weather events intensified by changes in our climate, like hurricanes, increased precipitation, and flooding. The makeshift pool the Vine Street swimmers enjoyed was mixed with both wastewater and potentially toxic materials.

Some 60% of the city has what’s called a combined sewer system (CSS) — an apparatus that accumulates sewage, industrial wastewater, and rainwater runoff into one channel, which is sent to a sewage plant for treatment, according to the EPA. But when the collected water exceeds the plant’s capacity, untreated water enters nearby waterways and streets.

Such an event is called a combined sewer overflow (CSO) — the phenomenon that I witnessed on my social media feeds as a result of Ida. The impacts of a CSO are also made worse in urban areas where water can move swiftly on asphalt surfaces, unabsorbed by green spaces, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer

So, why does this matter? Storms happen, places flood, and we clean up and move on with our lives.

As a college student a few states away, I’m relatively unaffected by Philadelphia’s climate problems. I live in the suburbs anyway — a 20 minute drive from Center City — and visit home sparingly for holidays and breaks. 

But what if the problem expands? The Green Lane Bridge in the Manayunk neighborhood of the city, a mere four miles from where I grew up, was nearly submerged by Ida. I can’t help but think about my aging mom, and the house and vibrant garden she’s worked so hard to improve and beautify, becoming submerged by not just floodwater, but contaminated water. And having grown up in the region and witnessed the deep inequities in housing, education, and infrastructure across the city, I’m concerned that these extreme weather events and their putrid consequences will affect vulnerable communities the most.

My personal concerns coincide with observed trends and the potential future impacts of extreme weather events on Philadelphia’s wildlife, people, and economies. The 2018 National Climate Assessment indicates that the Northeastern United States as a whole has seen, and will continue to see, some of the highest rates of sea level rise and ocean warming in the country as a result of human-related greenhouse gas emissions. Rising ocean temperatures strengthen and intensify hurricanes with extra heat energy. Philadelphia in particular will see extreme flooding every year by 2050, according to NBC10 Philadelphia.

Frank Kummer, an environmental writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, has reported the most extensively on the impact of climate change on the city and its sewage system, specifically. His reporting demonstrates the multitude of ways in which climate change will wreak havoc on the area.

In his article, “The secret scourge of climate change? More raw sewage in Philadelphia’s waterways,” he shares data that shows Philadelphia’s rainfall average for the 21st century — 2000-2018 — was up eight inches from the 20th-century average. Additionally, he writes, waterways polluted by a CSS overflow can cause water oxygen level drops that can harm aquatic life — a drop that was observed in a local creek after a quick afternoon storm in September. Further, in another article, “Climate change is straining Philly’s 19th-century sewage system. Ida was a ‘wake-up call,'” he explains that after Ida, the Schuylkill River was designated “red” by the water department, meaning that bacteria levels were so high, the water wasn’t suitable for boating, wading, and fishing.

Besides the fact that the consequences of human-induced climate change are brutal for ecosystems, they’re incredibly costly to the communities they impact. From a national perspective, the total cost of extreme weather events to the American people has exceeded $1.1 trillion since 1980, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment.

And now zooming into Philadelphia, in another Kummer article, Brian Rademaekers, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Water Department, said that a plan to redesign and construct a new sewage system that could handle extreme weather events would cost billions of dollars. City officials are hoping that funding from Biden’s infrastructure will aid in this investment. 

So now, I feel that I’m back at square one. We can improve our infrastructure, but we can’t stop the inevitable: Climate change is altering our hometowns, our country, and our world in scary ways. Flooding in Philadelphia is just a microcosm under the vast umbrella of climate change’s wrath. And for those who deny climate change, or refuse to act on it — especially in the Philly region — well, its impacts might soon submerge their city. And it’s really going to be shitty.

Editor’s note: Check back each day during COP26 for more pieces in Planet Forward’s Climate Hits Home series.

How do you move the planet forward?
Submit Story
combined sewer system, Hurricane, Philadelphia, sewage

Get the Newsletter

Get inspiring stories to move the planet forward in your inbox!

Success! You have been added to the Planet FWD newsletter. Inspiring stories will be coming to your inbox soon.