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Millions of Gallons of Raw Sewage Released During Hurricane Harvey

The floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey unleashed more than just mayhem. They also allowed millions of gallons of untreated sewage to flow unmitigated.
The floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey unleashed more than just mayhem. They also allowed millions of gallons of untreated sewage to flow unmitigated.
Photo by Doogie Roux

Diving into the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey may have seemed like a cute idea at the time, but there are reasons why parents are always telling kids to stay out of that water, and they include feces and urine.

Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain in parts of the Houston area after it slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast at the end of August, but it wasn't just rainwater rushing out of the bayous and over the streets during the historic storm.

On top of the trash, snakes, alligators and other critters, and the chemicals from the plants and refineries, the floodwaters also unleashed a whole lot of untreated sewage.

More than 31 million gallons of raw sewage spilled across southeast Texas as Harvey rolled through the area, as the wastewater treatment plants that are supposed to handle the sludge went down because of high winds and flooding.

Most of the spills, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, occurred in Harris and Fort Bend counties. In Harris County, 65 separate releases dumped more than 20 million gallons of untreated sewage into the area. Fort Bend fared slightly better, with just 11 releases allowing 9.5 million gallons of sewage into the floodwater mix. (Keep in mind that the average person produces 40 to 60 gallons of wastewater a day, or up to about 22,500 gallons a year, so this is truly a staggering amount of feces- and urine-tainted water that got out of the treatment plants and into the surrounding environment.)

While the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is recording the damage and spills as the reports come in, even the TCEQ is spotty on exactly how much sewage was ultimately spilled during and after Harvey, because some of the reports are filled out but others leave key informational areas — like the amount of raw sewage released — blank.

Still, we do know that nine wastewater plants in the Hurricane strike zone are currently out of commission, with eight of the plants described as "nonoperational" while one is classified "destroyed." On top of that, 30 sewage plants have sustained damage, and are not operating at full capacity, according to the most recent TCEQ report.

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TCEQ is working on getting the plants up and running — the number of facilities on the "inoperable" list has been shrinking by the day if not by the hour — but there's still a teachable moment you can take from all of this. When you see your neighbor decked out with an inflatable swan, flippers, a snorkel and floaties during the next big flood — because this is Houston and there will always be another flood — you might want to mention the odds that he could be snorkeling and splashing through actual poop.

Or not.

It all really depends on how much you like that neighbor.

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