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Editorial: Falls Water Board must end sewage discharges

And again, discharge from the Niagara Falls Water Board’s treatment facility has fouled the gorge just below the falls. This chlorine-scented overflow seems to be a result of lack of capacity rather than human error, but whatever the cause, it further demonstrates the need for prompt action.

The latest in a series of discharges occurred earlier this week as heavy rain fell across Western New York. Like many older water treatment systems, the one in Niagara Falls combines stormwater runoff and “sanitary sewage” from toilets and sinks. Three other such discharges were reported last week.

When rainfall pushes plants beyond their capacity, they overflow. It’s unacceptable when those discharges foul beaches along Lake Erie, closing them to swimmers, but even worse when they blight what is indisputably one of the world’s best-known tourist attractions.

If the overflow was caused by rain – and it pays not to take the Water Board’s unconfirmed word on that – then at least we know what needs to be done: The plant needs to be expanded and modernized, and money is available for that work.

If it was just too much water, it would at least be better than the July 29 discharge that, at the height of tourist season, released foul-smelling black effluent into the gorge. That one was caused by avoidable human error – including poor management practices – although Water Board officials dissembled about it for days.

As a result of that international embarrassment and subsequent discharges, the board drew pointed public criticism from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and a fine from the Department of Environmental Conservation. The Water Board was also directed to take a number of steps to prevent such accidents from recurring.

But the chronic problem is the overflows caused by insufficient capacity and outdated technology. The Water Board observed that while modern plants use a biological process to handle waste, the Niagara Falls operation uses a combination of chemical and physical processes. The plant needs to be updated.

The good news is that, at Cuomo’s urging, the State Legislature approved a $2.5 billion water infrastructure bill as part of the current state budget. It’s not nearly enough to meet the demands across a state where outdated water infrastructure is commonplace. But few communities have a better case to make for a helping of that money than does Niagara Falls – that is, assuming the Water Board can show that it is a competent manager and that the investment will produce results.

All of Western New York has a stake in this, beginning with Niagara Falls, which wants visitors to stay longer than the few hours that has been the norm for many years. Sewage discharges won’t help with that.

Nor will they help lure those visitors to Buffalo, where tourism opportunities are developing along its waterfront, in its architecture and in other places. The reverse is also true: How many people visiting Buffalo and other parts of Western New York will be dissuaded from visiting Niagara Falls if the risk is an olfactory assault, and an especially noxious one, at that?

The Water Board says it is working with the DEC to identify solutions to these problems. That’s good, but residents have no cause to rest easy until those solutions are announced, funded and implemented.

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