Stand on the banks of the Buffalo River on a warm day and you will see packs of kayakers, boaters and the occasional water cyclist navigating the serpentine waterway, which once serviced massive lake freighters moving goods between the Midwest and the East Coast.
Just five years ago the river likely would have been completely deserted, with most recreational uses seen as too risky in the PCB-contaminated waters, coupled with a lack of access and attention to the area. After a multi-stage cleanup and restoration effort funded by the federal government, New York state and Honeywell at a cost of more than $75 million, the area is once again bustling.
But despite the millions of dollars invested in the river – not to mention hundreds of millions more invested by governments at all levels and private businesses into infrastructure adjacent to waterways throughout the region – those kayakers and boaters, as well as area wildlife, continue to deal with another pollutant: raw sewage.
Water systems in the city of Buffalo and neighboring suburbs, most of which are nearing a century of use with little done to upgrade or maintain the underground infrastructure, use a combined stormwater and sewer scheme, meaning that rain flushes excess effluent into Western New York waterways at a rate of about 1.75 billion gallons per year.
Sitting in the Southtowns Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility just south of Buffalo, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said that while the economic benefits once afforded the region by its close proximity to water – including for industrial and chemical processes – no longer work to the region’s advantage, the water will once again play an important role in Buffalo’s economic revival.
“It’s not something that you see and it’s not something that’s real sexy from a political standpoint. But it’s something that you’ve got to get done …”
- Mark Poloncarz, Erie county executive
“We have this Great Lake here, and we talk about the blue economy and ensuring that we have an economy that’s partially based on the advantage of having all this fresh clean water,” Poloncarz said. “Well, we’ve got to ensure that it stays clean.”
Buffalo’s inner and outer harbors have been a focal point of coordinated efforts to turn around the region’s tarnished image, offering entertainment and outdoor recreation on land and water that until recently was nothing more than spoiled nature, and a constant reminder of the damage caused by the industries that once made Western New York an economic powerhouse.
Through state and federal investments – such as tax incentives and grants – efforts like those along the Buffalo River have cleaned up polluted water that had been too dangerous to even run a kayak through and improved fallow land along its shores.
Even with all that investment, and the faith that local leaders have put into a renewed waterfront as an economic and quality-of-life boon for the city, the legacy of the city’s planning and maintenance failures continues to hinder those efforts.
Case in point: Woodlawn Beach State Park, a popular Lake Erie beach just north of the Southtowns wastewater treatment plant, was closed to swimmers nearly half of the days the beach was open last year due to elevated levels of bacteria in the water, a problem that is linked to the sewer overflows, among other issues. The same was true for many lake beaches throughout Western New York.
The city of Buffalo and nine other nearby municipalities – some reluctantly – have come under consent decrees from the Environmental Protection Agency in recent years, with plans to install systems to stop excess rainwater from entering the system, drastically reducing overflow, set to be implemented over the next two decades.
Some lawmakers, including Poloncarz, Assemblyman Sean Ryan and Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke, recently have been trying to draw more attention to water quality, holding summits and calling for faster action from the EPA and a countywide ban on microbeads.
“There’s an incredibly disjointed manner in which the original sewer services were put together.”
- Joseph Fiegl, Erie County deputy commissioner of sewer management
A big obstacle with major infrastructure projects that could curb the problems, Poloncarz said, is that they are costly and don’t offer much appeal for politicians looking to prove their worth to constituents. The pipes are underground and their purpose is unpleasant.
“It’s not something that you see and it’s not something that’s real sexy from a political standpoint,” Poloncarz said. “But it’s something that you’ve got to get done, otherwise it has a negative impact on the community in the long run.”
With all the historical growth in Western New York that was driven by the advantages of its proximity to the lakes came a problem that persists today. Using the technology available to them at a time when environmental concerns were basically nonexistent, planners put together a patchwork of sewer systems that was quickly outgrown, allowing billions of gallons of raw sewage to spill into waterways each year.Over the decades local leaders have failed to address the issue, due to a lack of both resources and political will.
With many area municipalities neglecting their sewer systems for extended periods, the costs for the needed upgrades are now out of reach unless significant funding is secured from the county, state or federal government, Poloncarz said.
“They’d like the county to come in,” Poloncarz said. “But the county is not going to come in and save the town from what are basically decades of neglect. They didn’t put any investment in their own infrastructure. Why should the county come in and save the town to the tune of tens of and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars?”
One major project aimed at dealing with the issue is the Rush Creek Interceptor just outside Buffalo. Less than a mile from the Southtowns wastewater treatment plant, the $16 million infrastructure upgrade will both limit the amount of rainwater that ends up in the combined sewers and allow the Blasdell Wastewater Treatment Plant to be taken offline, with Southtowns – which has almost $70 million in improvements planned over the next decade – assuming its tasks and increasing the efficiency of the system.
Poloncarz said the county has been working for decades to improve the overall efficiency of the system in an effort to save ratepayers money and to execute a regional vision for the sewer system that works to minimize sewage runoff.
“We are always in conversations with towns with regards to taking over facilities,” Poloncarz said. “However, we’re just not going to do that and have the county assume all the costs associated with that.”
Joseph Fiegl, the Erie County deputy commissioner of sewer management, said that as Buffalo’s suburbs were experiencing explosive growth, municipalities went about setting up their own sewer systems, which were often run by citizen boards, often with no sense of regional planning.
Southtowns replaced 13 separate sewer treatment plants throughout the southern suburbs when it opened in 1980. Yet dozens of these smaller, decentralized facilities remain.
“There’s an incredibly disjointed manner in which the original sewer services were put together,” Fiegl said. With so many small sewer authorities, not only can it be hard to coordinate regional plans, but there is also no guarantee that the individual boards will cooperate. Since New York is a home rule state, the county cannot force any municipality to give up their own system and join a larger one.
Fiegl said the Poloncarz administration made clear that the department should encourage people on the local water boards to avoid kicking the can down the road, and for the most part local boards have worked with the county sewer authority to address their local issues.
“The boards have been supportive,” Fiegl said. “They don’t want us getting to the point where we’re going to have to be talking about in a year gaining 20- to 30-percent rate increases because we haven’t planned properly for what’s coming.”
With the EPA plan in place in the city of Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown’s administration has been moving forward with some projects, which will use a combination of soft infrastructure improvements – rain gardens, permeable material for road paving – and traditional means like large-scale construction work to reduce overflows.
“We have been, for the last few years, implementing that plan, and you will see that implementation on a much more robust basis going forward,” Brown said.
The city’s $380 million, 20-year plan will be funded in piecemeal fashion, meaning that officials will continually look for funding sources to keep the projects on track, which they must do to stay in compliance with the EPA consent decree.
Brown, like Poloncarz, said that while these repairs and improvements are not “sexy,” they need to be done, and that he has been working with people from various levels of government, including the governor, to figure out how to pay for the upgrades.
“I think Gov. Andrew Cuomo is very committed to the infrastructure needs of upstate New York and certainly we’ve talked specifically about the infrastructure needs of Buffalo,” Brown said. “So, I think we will see the governor focusing attention on upstate infrastructure as well.”
Click here to read part three of our saga: Rochester.