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State needs to lead effort to control sewage overflows polluting our water

Call it a product of the honor system, of sorts, but it bodes well that wastewater operators here report sanitary sewer overflows.

Environmental Advocates of New York released a report stating that nearly six of every 10 sanitary sewer overflows reported in the state occur in Erie County. The numbers are disturbing, but the group said underreporting of overflows in other areas of the state is part of the reason for the imbalance.

The honesty shown by Erie County wastewater operators complies with reporting under the state’s 2012 Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act. More operators across the state should be as diligent in reporting. If not, they should be held accountable.

New York City discharges an estimated 28 billion gallons of sewage into New York Harbor annually, and yet the state database reveals only 563,910 gallons of the stuff. Reporting roughly two-thousandths of a percent of actual sewage discharge certainly doesn’t smell right.

Acknowledging the problem is a good first step. The next is solving it before even more damage is done.

The Albany-based environmental watchdog organization’s report “Tapped Out” said it best: “When potential contamination from raw sewage occurs, the public should be notified.” Breaking the public trust is not an option. It is risky and expensive behavior on the part of officials.

The risk lies in the potential damage to public health and to the environment. The report points out how sewage pollutes waters with “pathogens, bacteria, heavy metals, excess nutrients and other toxics.” Exposure to pathogens found in sewage can lead to a number of nasty health consequences detailed in the report such as diarrhea, vomiting and respiratory and other infections.

The pollution is the reason people can’t swim at Gallagher Beach, and why other Lake Erie beaches are often closed to swimming.

Last summer Woodlawn Beach was closed 43 days; Bennett Beach, 41 days; Evans Town Beach, 36 days; Hamburg Bathing Beach, 37 days; and Lake Erie Beach, 39 days.

These limits during an already-short summer are a huge disappointment to would-be beachgoers. It can also be costly. Pristine waterways would be one more incentive to businesses interested in locating here.

In its report, the environmental group is careful not to condemn the state Department of Environmental Conservation or wastewater operators. The report does point to solutions, which will be expensive. The state DEC has identified $36 billion in wastewater infrastructure upgrades. But that’s the price of doing little, if anything, in the way of infrastructure upgrades over decades.

Some steps are being taken.

A $16 million upgrade at Erie County’s Southtowns plant should stop overflows into Rush Creek, helping the situation at Woodlawn Beach. Cheektowaga and West Seneca also are working to stem sewage overflows into creeks.

The Buffalo Sewer Authority has agreed to a two-decade-long effort to end its billions of gallons of overflows. The city’s aging sewage and wastewater systems are combined. During heavy rains, treatment plants are overwhelmed and sewage is dumped into waterways.

But even municipalities with separate stormwater and sanitary systems can have problems during downpours. Broken pipes and illegal connections allow stormwater to inundate treatment plants.

The environmental group recommended several steps to improve the situation in the state, among them making permanent the Infrastructure Investment Act created last June. Fortunately, the governor and state legislators recognize the need. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recommended an additional $100 million in this year’s budget proposal, and legislators in both houses have proposed additional money. Whatever the final sum, much more will be needed.

Local communities should not have to shoulder the entire burden of cleaning up waterways. The state should contribute to vital upgrades that will keep our waters safe to drink, to swim in and to promote as an economic tool in our blue economy.