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Sewage woes require costly solution

When heavy rain pours down in West Seneca, it can mean two unpleasant things: Sewage bubbles up in some basements, and it drains into Cazenovia Creek.

And the town -- like many northeast communities with aging sewer systems -- is facing another unpleasant reality. The cost of fixing the problems will likely mean sewer rates will go up in many areas of the town.

It's such a complex and expensive issue that it has taken seven years since the town first agreed to reduce the sewage that flows into the creek to study the issue and come up with a comprehensive list of recommended repairs.

"There is no magic fix to this," said Richard B. Henry III, senior vice president for Clark Patterson Lee and the town engineer.

Henry told residents and Town Board members last week that the first phase of repairs could cost the town about $30 million -- money that will likely need to be borrowed through bonds.

But for residents like Janice Doctor, the help can't come soon enough. Doctor, who has lived on Azalea Drive since 1963, has seen sewer backups in her basement worsen during the last decade.

"When it rains real hard or if we have a snowmelt, we get bombarded with that stuff," Doctor said. "That sewer water, it's terrible. It comes up through the showers and comes up through the toilets."

The problems stem from a variety of issues -- from backups where pipe connections can't handle capacity to sump pumps that dump water into the system. But much of it boils down to this: Water that's not sewage is getting in.

Recorded flows during high-rain events, Henry said, can be five times the average daily amount.

The heavy rains that hit the region this spring were a headache for residents like Doctor, who has installed a valve to shut off her water when the rain starts.

But there's another problem when the West Seneca system is overwhelmed -- typically by rain and ground water that seeps into the sanitary system -- and it's an issue the state Department of Environmental Conservation wants addressed. The town's system allows sewage to overflow into Cazenovia Creek at five points.

So far this year, according to figures provided by the DEC, 166 million gallons of sewage has flowed into the creek in West Seneca. In 2010, 102 million gallons flowed into the creek.

"This is not full-strength wastewater," Henry said. "Yes, it is raw sewage, and it's going into the creek, but it's at a very diluted level. I'm not trying to rationalize it. I'm just trying to explain it."

It's not a problem that only occurs in West Seneca. The DEC uses computer models to estimate that the Buffalo Sewer Authority allows 4 billion gallons of sewer water each year to flow into area waterways. Of that, an estimated 143 million gallons flows from Buffalo into Cazenovia Creek each year, according to the DEC. "We consider sanitary sewer overflows to be a serious issue, and we don't want to see really any amounts going into the creeks," said Robert Locey, DEC environmental engineer.

West Seneca officials in 2004 signed an "order of consent" with the DEC agreeing it would put in place a long-term plan to eliminate the sewer overflows into the creek. Early estimates of the work needed to make those repairs ranged as high as $70 million.

Since then, the town has moved forward on some repairs -- including adding plastic lining to some existing pipes -- that have helped eliminate one of the Cazenovia Creek overflow points. It has also spent two years putting a plan together and evaluating the system to pinpoint the problems.

Henry and other town officials are planning a second public information session to explain the problems facing the sewer district at noon July 8 in the West Seneca Senior Citizens Center, 4620 Seneca St.

e-mail: djgee@buffnews.com

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