Nobody wants to see floatables in our waterways. But with outdated infrastructure when it comes to combined sewer systems, what’s a city to do? Sit back and smell the “flowers” or get busy coming up with an action plan? For years it seemed as if smelling the flowers was the answer… after all where do you come up with the millions of dollars when the environment and public health usually play second fiddle to many other issues.
Finally, the EPA has approved a plan by the Buffalo Sewer Authority to reduce sewage and water pollution in the Niagara River and other waterways. Per the issue of waste entering our waterways, consider the following… we’re not talking about a couple of little sources of the pollutants. Rather we’re looking at close to two billion gallons of sewage overflows that enter Niagara River and its tributaries each year. Now that’s something to think about.
Untreated sewage from buildings, and rainwater from our streets has wreaked havoc on our waterways for years. Now, thanks to mandates from the EPA, the Buffalo Sewer Authority has been under pressure to figure out a solution. According to a recent announcement by the EPA, “Under the approved plan, the Buffalo Sewer Authority will implement a series of projects that will improve water quality in the Niagara River and its tributaries, including projects that use green infrastructure to soak up and store stormwater that would otherwise increase overflows of raw sewage into local waterways. The Buffalo Sewer Authority has committed to investing $380 million on these projects over 20 years.”
“The Buffalo Sewer Authority has shown its commitment to come into compliance with the Clean Water Act and improve people’s health and water quality throughout the city,” explained Judith A. Enck, EPA Regional Administrator. “The incorporation of green infrastructure into the plan will help restore the Niagara River, while building healthier, greener and more sustainable communities.”
When excess water flows in Buffalo (snow melt for example), treatment facilities cannot handle the added pressure. That means that storm water, untreated human and industrial waste, toxic pollutants and debris are all discharged into the environment, untreated. Now the Sewer Authority is looking to such solutions as green infrastructure, which includes green roofs, rain gardens and swales, permeable pavement, restored wetlands, etc… all of the systems that Mother Nature originally set out for us (until man opted for “gray” solutions). The less water that makes it into the sewers, the better. Plus there are aesthetic benefits to boot!
“EPA, DEC and BSA have worked collaboratively to develop a comprehensive Long Term Control Plan to significantly improve water quality and reduce combined sewer overflows to the water bodies in the Buffalo and Niagara River watersheds,” said DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. “This plan is an important step in achieving cleaner, healthier and more vibrant waters in the City of Buffalo, while providing future opportunities for recreational activities for local residents and visitors. DEC applauds BSA for incorporating green infrastructure into the plan to protect the fresh water resources of the Lake Erie water basin and assist in beautifying an urban landscape.”
Currently, when water capacities are reached, and the Bird Island wastewater treatment plant is not able to keep up with demand, the answer is to discharge from the plant’s outfalls (into the Niagara River), and other overflow points along the Niagara River (and onto Niagara Falls), Black Rock Canal (Regattas beware), Erie Basin (yup, that’s Canalside), Buffalo River (hello kayakers), Scajaquada Creek (Delaware Park), Cazenovia Creek and Cornelius Creek. It was back in 1999 that the EPA issued a permit to conduct this mess, as long as the Sewer Authority came up with a Long Term Control Plan. But the plan that came about was not good enough (surprise, surprise), and therefore not approved.
It wasn’t until 2012 that the EPA issued a compliance order to the Sewer Authority that would bring about improvements compliant with technology and water quality-based requirements. That’s why we’ve started to see some of these measures incorporated into the city’s infrastructure as of late (Elmwood Avenue rain gardens and tests on permeable streets).
In early 2014 a long term plan was finally submitted by the Sewer Authority and approved by the EPA. From there an amended compliance order from the EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation set about to put a timeline on the plan – the implementation schedule will follow a 2034 final compliance deadline. While that might seem like a lenient timeline, the bright side is that we will be seeing many of these green practices implemented along the way (the process has already begun thankfully).
The Buffalo Sewer Authority has already invested over $50 million in completed and ongoing construction projects under its approved Long Term Control Plan, including:
A $2.8 million pilot project to determine green infrastructure effectiveness related to rain garden/infiltration basins, pervious pavement and house downspout disconnections
$1.2 million for green street projects along Carlton Street and Fillmore Avenue to collect flows from these areas and to turn vacant land into green space
$7.5 million for demonstration projects to determine how to maximize wastewater and stormwater storage with real time control technology
$18 million to construct the Hamburg Drain Floatable Control Facility to control entry of large floating debris into the Niagara River
$8 million for a storage project at Smith Street to reduce raw sewage overflows into the Niagara River
According to the EPA, “In addition to these projects, $93 million will be spent on green infrastructure for between 1,315 and 1,620 acres of impervious surface throughout Buffalo.”
*Projects will include vacant property demolitions, vacant lot modifications to allow for infiltration, pervious pavements, rain gardens, downspout disconnections and rain barrels. The Buffalo Sewer Authority will also invest $41 million in upgrades at its Bird Island Wastewater Treatment Plant to increase the treatment capacity for sewage and stormwater run-off and to ensure that all discharges receive adequate disinfection. Other projects will increase the system’s ability to collect and transport wastewater. The Buffalo Sewer Authority estimates that total costs will be approximately $380 million over 20 years.
Buffalo Sewer Authority collage image: City of Buffalo