Cleveland gets its drinking water from Lake Erie. The city sends its waste and stormwater right back to the lake.

So how does the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District protect our Great Lake for swimmers, boaters and anglers?

Most people never think about the labyrinth of pipes and massive treatment plants that protect our water, said sewer district spokeswoman Jeannie Smith.

“You flush it, you don’t see it, it goes in the magical land of poop treatment,” Smith said.

The district’s Southerly Cuyahoga Heights plant – one of three, where nearly 3,000 people visited for an open house last month – treats 225 million gallons of wastewater a day.

You’ve probably seen the Westerly treatment plant near Edgewater Park, or the big pipe at Edgewater Beach, which used to discharge sewage 40 or 50 times a year but now only goes off with big storms. Now it overflows only every two or three years.

The district spends about $230 million on capital projects and $175 million on day-to-day operations every year. It handles about 1 million people flushing, washing their clothes, washing themselves, cooking and more.

Here are four ways the district is protecting our Great Lake:

  1. Pretreatment: The sewer district regulates wastewater discharge from industrial facilities before it reaches the district’s three wastewater treatment plants. That prevents possible pollutants from reaching the lake.
  2. Project Clean Lake: The district is six years into a $3 billion, 25-year plan to reduce raw sewage discharges into the lake from 4.5 billion gallons a year to 494 million gallons. (That in itself is a huge improvement from the 1970s, when about 9 billion gallons of sewage a year entered the lake.) The discharges happen because Cleveland’s earliest sewers combine sanitary sewage from homes, stormwater and industrial waste in the same pipe. Now, during heavy storms, combined sewers can’t contain all the water, and the combination is released into the environment. The sewer district is working to fix the problem by building giant underground tunnels and and storage tanks, as well as green bioswales, to contain stormwater.
  3. Stormwater management: Anything that enters a storm sewer or roadside ditch winds its way to local streams and rivers and eventually into Lake Erie, without any treatment. The district charges customers a stormwater management fee to pay for projects that address flooding and erosion and improve water quality, including cleaning out culverts.
  4. Beach quality testing: Since 1992, the district has monitored Edgewater and Villa Angela beaches between May and October to make sure they’re safe for swimmers. When water quality is good and bacteria levels, including E. coli, are low, you see a green box alert.  When bacteria levels are likely to be high, you will see a red box, meaning water contact is not advised. You can see the signs at the beaches or follow the Twitter account @NEORSDbeaches.

What can you do to help?

  1. Pick up poop: Bacteria from dog poop can soak into groundwateror flow with stormwater into the lake. That’s not good for the environment. can soak into groundwater, or be carried by rainwater to storm sewers which carry the flow to nearby streams.
  2. Dispose of unneeded pharmaceuticals: Throw them out in a drug drop box. Wastewater treatment plants do not remove pharmaceuticals from the water, so medications end up in Lake Erie, potentially harming fish and other animals.
  3. Don’t flush stuff: Anything that’s not human waste or toilet paper has to be filtered out. That means dead goldfish, drugs, feminine products and baby wipes. “Just because you can flush marbles and Hot Wheels doesn’t mean you should,” Smith said. And don’t pour grease, cleaning products or other stuff down the sink.