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Philly might need to raise water bills to get your pee out of the Delaware River, protect fish

Philadelphia warns residents water bills might increase
Philadelphia warns residents water bills might increase 01:04

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- To sum up immediately - no, Philadelphians' urine does not actually go directly into the Delaware River. But a byproduct of our daily trips to the John is making things tougher for wildlife, including two endangered species of fish, environmentalists say.

A proposed change to an EPA rule would require water treatment plants along the Delaware River to decrease the amounts of ammonia they emit into the river through treated wastewater, for the good of the fish.

The EPA's proposed change to water quality standards would address a 38-mile stretch of the Delaware River Estuary that the agency argues does not meet the goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act due to its low oxygen levels.

"Going back to the early 1970s with the creation of the EPA and the Clean Water Act, the goal was to achieve fishable and swimmable waters," Kristen Bowman Kavanagh, deputy executive director of the DRBC, said. "We're getting closer to achieving those goals. What this regulation would do is increase those dissolved oxygen levels so we would have improved habitat and satisfy the goals of the Clean Water Act."

What's ammonia and what is it doing to the Delaware River?

Ammonia is a nitrogen compound present in human waste, which gets pumped from the sewers to wastewater treatment plants, which then put the treated water, still containing some ammonia, into the river.

Ammonia is not great for fish. It absorbs some of the dissolved oxygen in the water, which leaves less oxygen for fish to take in through their gills.

Because of the ammonia in human waste, dissolved oxygen levels in the river "sag" during summer months  - and that can adversely impact species like the Atlantic sturgeon and the shortnose sturgeon, which are sensitive to the lower oxygen levels. 

In the past, the Delaware River had "dead zones" where there was little to no dissolved oxygen, making it impassable or uninhabitable for aquatic life. While the dead zones are now gone and conditions have improved over the past decades since the passage of the Clean Water Act, there's still more progress that can be made, the EPA and Delaware River Basin Commission say.

The DRBC and EPA said improving sewage treatment processes to capture more ammonia will increase the oxygen levels in the river.

According to a report sponsored by the DRBC, the top 12 wastewater treatments plants along the Delaware River dispense a combined 77,322 pounds (or 38 tons) of ammonia per day into the river - in 706 million gallons of water per day.

Philly is also planning a $70 million side treatment facility that would collect ammonia from the river before it reaches the treatment facilities.

Wait, what's happening to my water bill?

Nothing is set in stone yet - but Philly's water department says unless the state or federal government help out with footing the bill for treatment plant upgrades so they can reduce their ammonia output into the river, the department will have to raise bills by over $20 a month.

"Without significant financial support from the state or federal government, that cost will be passed on to customers through higher water bills for years to come," the water department wrote on Feb. 7

"PWD estimates the EPA's proposed regulations will cost customers an additional $22.17 per month on water bills, not $1.50 per month as calculated by EPA. That amounts to over $265 in new costs for water customers each year."

As of 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, nearly 5,000 people had submitted public comments through the Federal Register. The public comment period ends at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20.

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