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Cheektowaga and state at odds over sewer overflows that spoil Buffalo’s beautiful spots

Reflections of the Japanese Garden in Mirror Lake. Bridal parties at Hoyt Lake. Walks near Forest Lawn’s Serenity Falls.

They’re breathtaking views of beauty. But so is the stench.

Scajaquada Creek flows into these man-made lakes – and pours millions of gallons of raw sewage into them during heavy rains, some of it coming from Cheektowaga’s sanitary sewer overflows.

Now, Cheektowaga and state officials are at odds over how to stem the problem of sewage that fouls local creeks and lakes.

Last month, the state rejected the town’s latest plan to reduce the amount of sewage it releases into area creeks and streams.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation wants the town to make stronger efforts to rid from its sewer system the large number of illegal tie-ins of sump pumps and down spouts on private property.

But so far, the town’s plan does not include “sewer use enforcement actions, improved public involvement, improved storm water management of innovative programs to encourage private side involvement and actions,” the DEC told the town.

It became the town’s second plan shot down by the DEC.

The town prefers building storage areas to capture and temporarily store excess sewage, along with constructing relief sewers to alleviate pressure on its system in times of high demand.

The town calls its plan “the most environmentally beneficial approach” and suggests that the DEC is to blame for contributing to the problem by denying its plans and failing to provide “guidance” along the way.

“We can only wonder what the impact of these facilities might have been if constructed 10 years ago when first proposed,” town engineers wrote in the plan to the DEC.

While town and state officials square off, those who work, live and play near the scenic water spots keep smelling the problem.

A four-mile underground portion of the creek ends just inside the Main Street gates at Forest Lawn, emptying everything from shopping carts, refrigerators, picnic tables and other unmentionable “floatables” right into the cemetery’s grounds.

‘Times of terrible smell’

“Certainly, there are times of terrible smell,” said Joseph P. Dispenza, president of Forest Lawn. “The ‘other solids’ are the nasty things.”

Scajaquada Creek, after winding its way through Forest Lawn, is prone to flooding along some of its low-lying banks around the Delaware Avenue “S-curves” both in the cemetery and along Hoyt Lake before it returns underground for about a half-mile before reappearing near Mirror Lake outside the Buffalo History Museum.

“It’s just sad we have this award-winning gorgeous park that has this running through it,” said Stephanie Crockatt, executive director of Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks Conservancy. “It’s why everybody has to play a part because we could put it back to a better way.”

Cheektowaga, which is under a state consent order to reduce and eliminate sewage discharge into area creeks, offers a two-pronged approach to tackle the problem at its end.

The town plan:

• Construct overflow storage ponds at two of its pump stations.

• Make infrastructure improvements that would redirect wastewater from overflow prone areas in town during wet weather.

Town Engineer Patrick T. Bowen said the town’s plan would “provide a more immediate benefit to Scajaquada Creek and Hoyt Lake.”

During times of high rains, or rapid snowmelt, the sanitary sewer system is inundated by excess storm water, resulting in the sewage overflows into area creeks.

Town officials propose constructing a pair of overflow retention facilities at its Central Avenue main and Clinton Street pump stations.

The plan could result in holding back more than 8 million gallons of sewage that inundate the system during heavy rains, allowing the town to treat that stored sewage after the weather subsides.

As a result, between 57 and 75 percent of overflow sewage volume could be reduced in as soon as two years, according to estimates by Nussbaumer & Clarke, the engineering firm retained by the town to submit its proposal to the DEC.

“The impact and cost effectiveness of storage will immediately clean up Scajaquada Creek and Hoyt Lake pollution problems, as well as create a much safer environment for families in the Town of Cheektowaga,” according to the town’s plan.

In tandem with the sewage storage ponds, Cheektowaga also wants to build a relief sewer in the flood-prone Winston-Vegola Park area. The small neighborhood of mostly post-World War II era homes is wedged between Genesee Street and an elevated bank of the Kensington Expressway near Union Road.

The new relief sewer, intended to divert flows away from the area during wet weather to less impacted areas, would allow the town to eliminate a pair of portable pumps there. They are “two of the most active sanitary sewage overflows,” according to the town.

“The removal of the portable pumps results in the elimination of an overflow at those locations,” Bowen said in a statement.

It also proposes other sewer projects on five other town streets.

During all this work, the town will solve its widespread problem of storm water infiltrating its sanitary sewer system, town officials say. That happens when sump pumps, down spouts and yard drainage systems are illegally tied into the sanitary sewer system and when storm water finds its way into cracked lateral sanitary sewer pipes buried between homes and the main municipal sewer line.

Contrasting views

A recent visual survey by The Buffalo News in the Winston-Vegola Park neighborhood revealed several residences where downspouts were connected directly to the sanitary sewer.

Town officials said addressing this issue with private property owners is easier said than done.

Although Erie County officials engaged in a successful home-by-home inspection of illegal sewer tie-ins in several communities a few years back, Cheektowaga engineers told The News that they were advised by legal counsel the town cannot legally conduct such inspections.

And Cheektowaga simply doesn’t have data about how widespread its problem is. “Because private sources are a large contributor to the stated problem, a long and tedious process is required to locate all of the sources and implement corrections to eliminate the inflow and infiltration throughout the system,” Bowen stated. “Many years will pass prior to realizing significant improvement and impact to Scajaquada Creek and Hoyt Lake.”

The DEC views Cheektowaga’s plan as trying to solve the problem backward.

State environmental officials want Cheektowaga to first address the problem of outside infiltration and inflow into its sanitary sewer system from private properties.

That’s the “root of the problem,” the DEC said.

“Completing the inflow and infiltration reduction program will allow the town to fully evaluate effectiveness of the work, and will allow the town of concentrate its future resources on elements which can be shown to provide the greatest cost-benefit returns,” according to a recent letter to Bowen from Jeffrey A. Konsella, the DEC’s regional water engineer.

Similar programs to fix those issues – and fine property owners in violation – worked well enough in three nearby towns – Amherst, Tonawanda and West Seneca – to drastically reduce sewage volume or eliminate it all together, according to the DEC.

“The town has not enforced existing local law that requires all downspouts and sump pumps discharging to the sanitary sewer to be disconnected,” the DEC said in its letter rejecting Cheektowaga’s plan.

The town is required, as part of the consent order, to submit an analysis report detailing inflow and infiltration in Cheektowaga by the end of the year.

DEC officials said the information will help determine exactly how big the problem is in town – volumewise. That, in turn, should help the town prioritize areas that need to be fixed quicker.

The DEC told Cheektowaga officials not to proceed with the town plan and “should focus and proceed with only those projects that are consistent with the inflow and infiltration reduction strategy,” according to the DEC letter to Bowen in late September.

It added that “other means of sanitary sewer overflow abatement, such as relief sewers and storage, are to be pursued only after comprehensive inflow and infiltration identification and reduction program requirements have been completed.”

West Seneca, a town known for sewer system problems only a few years ago, is three years into a $30 million upgrade program that shows early signs of success:

• Sewage backups into residential basements are a fraction of what they once were.

• Some overflows into tributaries to the Buffalo River have been eliminated.

• Enforcement actions are taken against illegal connections, and broken residential lateral sewers are getting fixed.

“You can accomplish a lot in a few years,” said Steven R. Tanner, the West Seneca town engineer.

Tanner said West Seneca’s “multifaceted approach” has included hitting hard on inflow and infiltration issues in town. “The DEC has been a little hesitant of approving projects that have not had to do with inflow and infiltration reduction,” Tanner said.

West Seneca offers example

Nearly one-fifth of the town has already been inspected to make sure sump pumps and downspouts are not illegally connected to the sanitary sewer. Those in violation are required to make repairs.

The town lines its sewer mains with a cured-in-place pipe system that seals leaks caused by intrusions of roots, conducts maintenance in other areas and replaces some sewers in backup-prone neighborhoods.

Data indicates that the early efforts are paying off. Tanner said the number of sewer backup calls in town have been reduced from about 240 a month to only about a dozen a month.

Decades ago, West Seneca built sewer overflow retention facilities like those that Cheektowaga now wants to build. But West Seneca officials see less need for them now. They were used for excess sewage 11 times in 2011. They have been relied on just once this year.

And the town has eliminated overflows at four locations.

West Seneca officials understand what their counterparts in Cheektowaga face.

“They’re at the point West Seneca was 3-4 years ago,” Tanner said.