Sewage Playbook

If your community is experiencing threats to your water from raw sewage, you are not alone and you can find assistance to address these problems. 

Where to find help & report pollution


Local Waterkeepers are great resources for reporting pollution, investigating pollution issues, monitoring waterways, and working with local communities to figure out a way to address and fix water pollution problems. Waterkeepers are great resources on public participation opportunities and access to information about pollution sources and permits. To find Waterkeepers in the Chesapeake and coastal bays region, visit Waterkeepers Chesapeake’s website. To find Waterkeepers around the nation (and the world), visit Waterkeeper Alliance’s website. If you don’t have a Waterkeeper in your area, search out local Sierra Club chapters and other watershed groups for assistance, and visit River Network’s Who Protects Water? map.

Legal Clinics & Technical Assistance

If you don’t have a nonprofit legal resource in your area, seek out environmental and other types of law clinics at universities.

Researching pollution permits

Use EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) website to search for facilities in your community to assess their compliance with environmental regulations. State water quality agencies may also provide online access to existing pollution permits, such as Maryland Department of the Environment’s Wastewater Permits Interactive Search Portal.

Reporting pollution

All Waterkeepers have pollution reporting hotlines (phone numbers, online forms, etc). You can report pollution from your phone with a number of apps. Download the Water Reporter and/or the Swim Guide and send in reports to your local Waterkeepers while you are out on your favorite waterway. The MyCoast app is used to document coastal and beach issues.

Public agencies on the local and state levels have ways for people to report pollution. Search for resources like this one in Fairfax County, VA, and Maryland’s report a pollution emergency.

Steps to take

What to look for:

  • Visible changes to the water, especially in heavy rains because there may be leaking pipes or cross connections with the stormwater system. 
  • Sanitary waste coming out of pipes into river.
  • New odors near pipes or manhole covers.
  • Water bubbling up from manhole covers.
  • Neighborhoods dealing with sewage backups.

Document what you see:

Document what you see with photos and videos to share with Waterkeepers and public agencies. Regular water quality monitoring by Waterkeepers, community groups and residents can be an incredibly helpful tool. For many pollutants, it isn’t that complicated, however, you need to be properly trained. For the local or state government, or a court of law, to take the results seriously, it is important to have a reputable lab analyze the samples as well. 

Where to find information:

Ask questions of your state, city or county environmental agencies about the quality of the water downstream from the treatment plant. Find out whether the local or state government is regularly monitoring the water downstream from wastewater treatment plants. It is important to review or compile data that tell the story of the problems you are witnessing. 

Ask your state agency to review permits and information about water quality standards. Ask your state agency if the river, stream or waterbody is on an impaired waters list and if it has a cleanup plan known as a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan. Ask for discharge reports for facilities such as wastewater treatment plants. If you need help understanding these documents, turn to the Waterkeepers and other groups listed above. If things don’t look right in the reports, the facility may be out of compliance with its permit.

As an example, check out information and resources found on Blue Water Baltimore’s website.

Take action:

If you find pollution violations, ask if the state environmental agency is taking corrective action. If you find ongoing violations that the state has not addressed, turn to the Waterkeepers and legal resources listed above for advice and assistance in filing a Clean Water Act lawsuit. In addition, contact local media to generate stories about sewage contamination and public health threats.

Applying the Clean Water Act to the sewage problem
in the Back River 

The Clean Water Act does not allow any discharge of pollution from a pipe (and many other discrete conveyances such as ditches) UNLESS the discharger gets a permit from the state that prescribes what they must do to treat the pollution and what level of control they must meet. To understand the Clean Water Act, visit CWA BASICS page.

STEP 1: The Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant discharge permit (called National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit) effective from May 2018 to April 2023 authorizes discharges into the Back River and High Head Lake, which is then pumped into Bear Creek and flows into the mouth of the Patapsco River as it flows into the Chesapeake Bay. 

This permit sets limits on bacteria discharged into Back River and High Head Lake (E coli: 126 MPN/100 monthly geometric mean).

STEP 2: In order to understand the appropriate levels of control, however, we first need to know what Maryland has officially declared as “uses” of the waters below the treatment plant, AND what limits on pollutants are necessary to fully protect those uses. Those uses and protections are part of the state’s Water Quality Standards. In the case of the Back River and Baltimore Harbor, Maryland has designated these waters for estuarine and marine aquatic life and shellfish harvesting.

STEP 3: Back River is on Maryland’s Impaired Waters List for PCBs in sediment and fish tissue, sediments, chlordane, nitrogen and phosphorus, chlorides, and sulfates. This list is useful for three reasons: 

  1. It identifies problems that have been documented
  2. It results in a prohibition of any listed pollutants in existing or new permits because discharges cannot “cause or contribute” to these impairments. 
  3. It requires that a water quality restoration plan be developed for the stretch of water body that is listed.

The permit for the Back River Wastewater Treatment plant authorizes an annual average concentration of total nitrogen of not more than 4.0 mg/L to be discharged (BWB Notice of Intent to Sue). Yet in March 2022, Baltimore reported a new record high concentration of total nitrogen of 22.2 mg/L, more than seven times the permitted limit. For reference, untreated sewage is 30 mg/L.

STEP 4: The Back River is part of several Water Quality Restoration Plans, called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs): 

Impairments in the river require the development of water quality restoration plans that necessitate updates to the treatment plant. Due to plans for the impairments in Back River, Baltimore Harbor, and Chesapeake Bay, the Back River treatment plant permit has specific limits for PCBs, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. 

STEP 5: The people and communities that are or may be adversely affected by ongoing violations are allowed to file a lawsuit against the entity violating (River Network’s CWA Owner’s Manual p. 136). Waterkeepers and other groups listed above are great resources for taking such an action.