Urban drainage systems need to be able to deal with both wastewater and stormwater whilst minimizing problems to human life and the environment, including flooding. Urbanization has a significant effect on the impact of drainage flows on the environment: for example, where rain falls on impermeable artificial surfaces and is drained by a system of pipes, it passes much more rapidly to the receiving water body than it would have done when the catchment was in a natural state. This causes a more rapid build-up of flows and higher peaks, increasing the risk of flooding (and pollution) in the receiving water. Many urban drainage systems simply move a local flooding problem to another location and may increase the problem. In many developed counties there is a move away from piped systems, towards more natural systems for draining stormwater.

Where the drainage system of an urban area is piped, by a ‘sewer system’, there are two approaches in use: ‘combined’ or ‘separate’.

The older parts of many cities (New York being an example) are drained using the combined system, whereby wastewater and stormwater are mixed and are carried together. The system takes the combined flow to the point of discharge into the natural water system, commonly via a wastewater treatment plant that discharges treated effluent. During heavy rainfall events, the stormwater flow will greatly dominate the wastewater flow in terms of volume, but it is hardly ever viable to provide sufficient capacity throughout the system for stormwater resulting from heavy rainfall, as the system would operate at a small fraction of its capacity during dry weather. Instead, structures are included in the system to permit overflow to a nearby watercourse. During significant rainfall events a significant volume of the flow is likely to overflow, rather than to continue to the wastewater treatment plant. As the overflowed water is generally a dilute mixture of wastewater and stormwater, these structures are designed hydraulically to prevent larger, visually offensive solids from being discharged to the river. However, the inescapable fact is that combined sewer overflows inevitably cause some pollution (Butler and Davies 2011).

In the urban areas served by a combined system, capacity is similarly exceeded by extreme stormwater flows. Under these circumstances, the ‘surcharging’ of the system may cause flooding of the urban surface and, as the flood water will include wastewater, there are associated pollution and health implications.

In a separate system, wastewater and stormwater are drained by separate pipes, often constructed in parallel. Wastewater is carried to the wastewater treatment plant, whereas stormwater is usually discharged direct to the nearest watercourse. The problem of combined sewer overflows is thereby avoided, but there are still challenges: stormwater discharge is usually untreated, and this may cause pollution. Stormwater may enter the wastewater pipe  either through mistaken or unauthorized connections; there may also be infiltration of groundwater at pipe imperfections. Because of the relative proportions of wastewater and stormwater during heavy rainfall, these additional inputs may significantly reduce the capacity of the pipe for the wastewater it was designed to carry.

In urban areas without conventional piped sewer systems, disposal of excreta and wastewater is likely to be localized, though in some cases simplified (shallow and small diameter) pipes are used. Stormwater is most likely to be carried by open drains, typically unlined channels along the side of the street. Better constructed channels may be lined with stone or concrete, and may be integrated into the urban landscape. Open drains are far cheaper to construct than stormwater sewers, and although they can easily become blocked by debris or refuse from the surface, such blockages are more easily monitored and removed than in piped systems.

Maintenance is vital, not only to remove obvious obstructions, but also cleaning out deposited sediment, and then disposing of the material so that it does not go back into the drain. In heavy rain, the capacity of an open urban drainage channel may quickly be exceeded; in a well planned system, overflow should be to a specified ‘major system’ such as a road which can act as a drainage channel.

Where there is no adequate system for disposal of wastewater, there is a high likelihood that open drains will be contaminated by foul sewage. This could come from contributions from areas without sewers, or from discharge from simplified sewerage which does not lead to an adequate treatment facility. Open drains may also be misused for the disposal of domestic solid waste. Where the quality of stormwater carried in open drains is an issue for these reasons, there may be limited opportunities for using semi-natural systems of urban drainage that rely on the storage or infiltration of stormwater because of public health issues.

Literature sources

Butler D. and Davies J.W. 2011 Urban Drainage, 3rd edition. UK: Spon Press.

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