Four of the seven upstate New York communities reporting the biggest sewage-and-stormwater releases into lakes and rivers since May are in the Buffalo Niagara region.
Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls ranked second and fourth, respectively, according to sewage discharge reports filed from May through July with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Discharges in Kenmore and Buffalo were the sixth- and seventh-highest amounts.
None of the discharges grabbed international headlines like the one last month in Niagara Falls, where smelly black water poured into the river below the American falls in full view of tourists on a sunny Saturday afternoon. After that incident, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called for a state investigation.
But the half-billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater that flowed from the four Western New York communities into the Niagara River, Scajaquada Creek and other waterways since May show just how big a problem the region faces. The discharges are nothing new, but the reports underscore how heavy rain and old infrastructure combine to pollute area waterways.
“The governor and the DEC are taking it seriously, apparently, if it’s a tourist attraction,” said Travis Proulx of Environmental Advocates of New York. “From our perspective, the Niagara Falls discharge is unfortunate, but it’s been good in informing all of the people. The governor and the DEC have to begin to take all discharges just as seriously.”
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos called that statement “way off the mark.”
“Since the governor took over, New York has been way ahead of many other states, if not all states, on water infrastructure,” Seggos told The Buffalo News.
The Cuomo administration instituted the Sewage Pollution Right-to-Know Law and corresponding NY-Alert system that informs the public about where and when sewage overflows are happening, Seggos said. Systems in Oneida and Amsterdam were the only others like Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls to report overflows totaling more than 100 million gallons.
The state also started a loan program through the Environmental Facilities Corp. and made two years of $400 million outlays to help municipalities pay for infrastructure improvements, Seggos said. It also committed $2.5 billion this year for clean water infrastructure and water quality protection.
“It isn’t just where people are seeing it or where tourists are seeing it,” Seggos said.
A plague for 100 years
The 309 municipal sewage overflows reported to the state’s NY-Alert system between May 1 and July 31 show those improvements don’t happen overnight.
During those three months:
• In 19 overflows in Niagara Falls, more than 150 million gallons of sewage and stormwater poured into Cayuga Creek and the Niagara River. Five of them sent 125 million gallons from the Falls Street outfall near the American falls.
• Buffalo’s 13 overflows poured 64.7 million gallons of sewage and stormwater into the Niagara River, Black Rock Canal and Cazenovia Creek. Most of that came over an eight-hour period July 13, when 48 million gallons was released into Cazenovia Creek.
• Kenmore made 89 overflow reports to the NY-Alert system. All of its 65.7 million gallons of overflow went into Two Mile Creek.
• Cheektowaga accounts for nearly 40 percent of Western New York’s reported sewage and stormwater discharges. Its 39 releases into the Buffalo River, Scajaquada Creek, Cayuga Creek and Ellicott Creek account for a region-high 203.3 million gallons.
Only three of the 309 discharges in upstate received some kind of disinfection treatment before entering creeks and streams.
“Combined sewer overflows have been plaguing the Great Lakes for the last 100 years,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. “Past generations became conditioned to accept pollution as a way of life, and expected that when it rains, sewage would overflow into area waterways.”
The untreated sewage is diluted by large volumes of stormwater from the combined systems in Buffalo and Niagara Falls and infiltration in places such as Cheektowaga and West Seneca. But the long-held adage that “dilution is the solution to pollution” is short-sighted, watchdogs say.
“There’s a certain capacity for the lakes to allow these dual usages,” said Michael Twiss, a Clarkson University biology professor who’s also a member of the International Joint Commission's science advisory board. “The public needs to know the implications.”
The region’s infrastructure is already aged and failing. Under increased stress from rain and climate change, it’s potentially disastrous to freshwater ecosystems, recreation at area beaches, human health and even economics, Twiss said.
“There isn’t a single Fortune 500 company in the world that would locate to a state where you can’t flush the toilet,” Proulx said.
Niagara Falls' overflows
The Niagara Falls Water Board finds itself in the cross-hairs of the DEC these days.
Its July 29 “dry weather release” of a black, stinky discharge from its wastewater treatment plant darkened the Niagara River near the base of the American Falls – shocking onlookers and drawing the ire of Cuomo and the DEC.
The discharge “clearly violated water quality standards,” DEC officials said. The agency is investigating, formal sanctions are pending, and the Water Board's report to the agency is due Friday.
But that high-profile incident is different from the 19 reported overflows of sewage and stormwater into the Niagara River and Cayuga Creek the past three months. Those wet water overflows didn’t get as much attention – until Aug. 15. Another combined sewer release of about 3 million gallons on that day turned the water brownish. Top DEC officials headed to the Niagara Gorge to promise a separate investigation.
On Friday, the DEC cited the Water Board for violating water quality standards.
“What is clear to us ... is that the Water Board has a problem,” DEC commissioner Seggos told The News. “The system itself is antiquated and in need of some very significant upgrades.”
The Water Board, in its response Friday, said it has invested $8 million in system enhancements in recent years and identified $6.9 million in capital improvements for system upgrades in 2018 with the DEC’s knowledge.
The "DEC specifically has been involved in monitoring wastewater treatment plant operations since the City of Niagara Falls constructed the existing plant in the 1970s," according to the Water Board's statement.
The Water Board added it “has no way of controlling for color or turbidity with respect to the overflow water during a wet weather event.”
In addition to the 125 million gallons from the five overflows at the Falls Street outfall, 10 other releases that happened farther downstream at its Gorge Pump Station accounted for 24.3 million gallons. Four more overflows that went into Cayuga Creek totaled just under a million gallons.
The DEC told the Water Board on Friday it wanted “a technical evaluation of its wastewater treatment plant and sewage system.”
It also told the local officials to “identify short-term measures to improve the operation of wastewater systems and collection systems, and conduct a longer-term evaluation of system upgrades, including the ability to capture and treat increased amounts of wet weather CSO discharges.”
“Even if you have a permit to discharge that doesn’t allow you to violate water quality standards,” Seggos said.
Cheektowaga and Kenmore
Kenmore's sheer number of overflow reports stood out: 89 between May 1 and July 31, the most in the Buffalo Niagara region.
In Cheektowaga, it was the sheer quantity of sewage: 203.2 million gallons, the most in the region.
Both communities are under consent orders from the DEC to fix their systems.
State grants and loans helped the town launch a multiphase project to line its sewers and rehabilitate its manholes to stop infiltration of stormwater into its sanitary system, Cheektowaga Engineer Patrick T. Bowen said.
Cheektowaga installed liners along 42 miles of sewers in the northwest corner of the town between October 2015 and last February, Bowen said.
The town will continue the work as it strives to meet a 10-year deadline it inked with the DEC to fix its sewers.
Kenmore discharged 65.7 million gallons into Two Mile Creek between May and July.
The village is working toward complying with an agreement with the DEC to reduce its sewage and stormwater overflows, which also primarily result from stormwater infiltration into its aged sewer infrastructure, by cutting back roots and installing sewer liners, said David Root, Kenmore’s public works superintendent.
Buffalo's reporting questioned
Buffalo reported 64.8 million gallons in overflows, compared to Kenmore’s 65.7 million gallons.
If true, that's encouraging for Buffalo, given the city's persistent problem with overflows.
But some dispute the city’s reporting.
“They only reported 13 discharges in this time and, very coincidentally, 100 gallons spilled each time,” said Roulx of Environmental Advocates.
“This just seems to be that the City of Buffalo is not properly reported,” Proulx said.
State officials said they weren't able to address Buffalo's specific reporting.
Buffalo might actually have lower overflow amounts than other communities because even though the city’s infrastructure is old, it was also built for a bigger city, said James Tierney, the state’s deputy commissioner for water. So Buffalo may have excess capacity to capture and hold back more flow, Tierney said.
Buffalo Sewer Authority officials, including its general manager, Oluwole A. McFoy, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Buffalo in 2014 signed a 20-year control plan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to satisfy a consent order to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The plan calls for $380 million in improvements to reduce its sewage overflows during heavy rains as well as the implementation of green infrastructure projects to capture stormwater before it affects the city’s combined system. About $136 million has been spent over the last decade in Buffalo.
“We want to make sure water stays out of our system, but once it gets in, we want to make sure it gets treated at our treatment plant,” McFoy said earlier this spring at a Great Lakes water quality meeting.
At the time, McFoy said the city eliminated about 13 million gallons of sewage from overflowing into the city’s creeks and streams between March and May 2016.