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Editorial: Storm sewer systems must be upgraded to protect quality of our greatest asset

To some extent, the problem affecting Lake Erie beaches is the same one tormenting property owners along the Lake Ontario shoreline: There’s too much water.

Efforts are underway to attend to some of those problems, but among them needs to be the infrastructure program authorized in the state budget earlier this year.

With the deluge of rain this spring, beach water along Lake Erie has frequently become too hazardous for swimming. That’s a dramatic change from last year, when a near-drought parched the landscape, but kept beaches busy and swimmers in the water.

The problem with rain is runoff and overflows. With nearly 17.5 inches of rain since March 1, runoff into creeks and streams, sewer overflows, erosion and turbidity have fouled beach water far more frequently than last year.

Consider: Woodlawn State Park beach has been closed to swimming more than half the time since it opened for the season, just before Memorial Day. Hamburg Town Park, meanwhile, has been closed about a third of the time.

But last year, when Buffalo recorded about one-third as much rain over the same period, beach closings fell by almost 65 percent from 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Beach Advisory and Closing Online Notification system.

There’s not much anyone can do about the amount of rain that falls around Western New York, or elsewhere in the Great Lakes watershed. But what New York State and its municipalities can do is to upgrade their water-handling infrastructure to avoid or at least limit the overflow – especially of raw, untreated sewage – that now pours into Lake Erie when stormwater overwhelms the existing treatment facilities.

That’s where the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act comes in. Approved as part of the new state budget, the measure is meant to help local governments pay for infrastructure projects, address water emergencies and investigate and mitigate emerging contaminants. That work is urgently needed, not simply to keep beaches open to swimmers, but to protect the quality of Western New York’s waterways – the area’s primary natural resource. Lakes Erie and Ontario are to Buffalo and Western New York as oil is to Texas.

Water quality in our lakes has been improving in recent years, due in large part to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an effort created by the Obama administration and now under siege from President Trump, who has threatened to reduce its funding by a debilitating 97 percent. Thus, New York and Washington are pointing in opposite directions on the matter of water quality – the former understanding and acting upon the need for clean water, which includes continuing the work of cleaning the Great Lakes and its tributaries; the other, not much caring about that.

Western New York has already benefited from the GLRI. Under its umbrella, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent parts of two years cleaning decades of industrial pollutants from the Buffalo River. Once declared biologically dead, the river could be swimmable by next year and its fish safe for consumption within a decade. That’s a remarkable turnaround.

Similarly, the Niagara River is also cleaner than it has been in decades. It now supports lake sturgeon and bald eagles. Another tributary, Scajaquada Creek, is expected to be cleaned of terrible pollution under a new state and local program.

That’s the trend. Washington needs to support it, and local officials need to make use of the new state infrastructure program to add to the effort of protecting the reviving waters of Lake Erie.
With that, better swimming will be only part of the benefit.

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