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Imagine a 241-mile-wide toilet. That is what Lake Erie becomes when heavy rains overwhelm the 100-year-old pipes and our municipal wastewater systems.

Overflow systems automatically discharge liquid sewage into either the lake or one of its many tributaries.

It’s the way the system was designed to work a century ago – to protect the infrastructure of sewage plants and pipes as well as neighborhood streets and basements.

Along the Lake Erie shore – from the Southtowns to Westfield – raw sewage overflows happened 51 times last year, dumping more than 44 million gallons of sewage into the lake, according to figures from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Those 42 million gallons of waste would fill more than 67 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

If you think that’s bad, overflows from Buffalo’s sewers sent more than a billion gallons of sewage into the Buffalo River, passing by the inner harbor on its way to the Erie Basin.

All this is why beaches along our Lake Erie shore often close. “It’s pretty aggravating when you’re hot and want to cool off,” Rachel Choczynski, an Angola resident, said during a recent warm evening in the town.

It’s not just about cooling off.

It’s about health.

Last year, there were hundreds of closings to the dozen or so beaches in the area because of concerns that E. coli or fecal coliform levels could threaten human health.

“Nobody wants to swim in that,” said Matt LaBarge, a Southtowns resident. “We go home and feel a little sick. We think it’s just drinking – but it could be the water. You never know.”

They aren’t the only ones who are worried about the cleanliness of Lake Erie’s waves. Those who keep an eye on the region’s environmental health are also concerned.

“We can’t have sewage in our fresh water,” said Brian Smith of Buffalo, a member of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Millions of Americans are getting sick every single year in water that’s contaminated with sewage.”

Old pipes also to blame

Overflows likely aren’t the only way sewage is getting into the lake.

Old pipes also could be to blame.

In the Erie County Health Department, scientists are studying whether large quantities of liquid waste might be escaping from unseen cracks and ruptures in underground sewer lines all across the lake’s watershed – due to pipes that are aging.

The waste might be following a gravel path below the sewer network and finding its way to tributaries and the lake.

One preliminary study, at Hamburg’s Rush Creek, seems to suggest that theory is correct.

Officials do know this: of the 51 untreated wastewater overflows last year, a majority occurred in Erie County Sewer District No. 3, which runs through a majority of Hamburg and Orchard Park and also includes slivers of West Seneca, Eden, Boston and Holland.

The problems included incidents in the Southtowns, where nearly 17 million gallons were released in three episodes; in the Blasdell collection system, where 26 overflows put out nearly 4 million gallons; and in the Hamburg collection system, where nine overflows resulted in more than 10 million gallons released.

In Evans, the Big Sister treatment plant saw five overflows totaling more than 2 million gallons. None occurred at the Lackawanna plant, DEC figures show.

In Chautauqua County, there were similar releases. Dunkirk’s plant treated more than 10 million gallons of bypassed sewage with chlorine before it went into Lake Erie on four occasions. Westfield’s system expelled 110,000 gallons during four events, while there was none in Fredonia.

“The discharge of untreated sewage is against the law,” said Jeffrey Konsella, DEC’s Region 9 Water Engineer stationed on Michigan Avenue in Buffalo, “and it’s undesirable.”

But it’s not because the plants are committing illegal acts.

Systems at capacity

Releasing waste into the waters of our region is typically a last option.

The overflows occur when the wastewater treatment plants or collection systems are at capacity and, if they did not engage “emergency bypass mechanisms,” the wastewater treatment facilities would be irreparably damaged, Konsella said.

Treatment facilities are required to do “everything in their power to make sure treatment bypasses are at least chlorinated from bacteria,” Konsella said.

He added that all are mandated to “protect human health and the environment to the extent feasible” before an overflow is released.

That doesn’t necessarily make residents who use the lake and its beaches feel better.

Diane Perry, an Orchard Park grandmother who visits a beach at least once a week, said her family found the water at Woodlawn closed to beachgoers “seven out of every 10 times” they went in recent seasons.

“We’re planning not to come here this year because of the water,” said Perry. Her family pre-emptively scrubs its own beach plans following rainstorms.

Perry also said she had spied a pipe on the western edge of the property with “rusty orange and yellow” water running out of it.

“It looked like you wouldn’t want to walk in it,” she said of the outflow.

As if the situation weren’t bad enough, other stuff is floating to the surface in Buffalo.

Condoms, tampons and other items have been found floating – hence, the DEC’s term for them, “floatables” – along the surface of the Buffalo River near sewer overflow drains.

The river travels right through the city’s burgeoning Canalside District – on its way to the Erie Basin.

Changes over the years to the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 prohibit constructing combined storm and sanitary sewers, as exist in Buffalo.

That’s why the city is under a federal order to develop ways to eliminate its combined system and the sewage overflows.

In most cases, this putrid discharge is likewise legal under the exception to the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, a program approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The DEC has also petitioned the EPA to designate Lake Erie as well as the Niagara River above Niagara Falls as a “No Discharge Zone,” which would prohibit dumping boat sewage overboard. The zone is already in effect below the falls and Lake Ontario.

Too costly to fix?

So why are wastewater systems permitted to overflow raw sewage into the same water where people go to the beach – and 11 million people draw their tap water?

That grosses out pretty much everybody.

“It’s like swimming in a toilet,” said Point Breeze resident Steve Turner, who was hanging out at the lakeshore one day last week.

Experts said it’s because the alternative is both costly – and difficult.

“Wastewater collection and treatment systems could be designed to capture and treat 100 percent of all flows, but the alternatives are generally too expensive for society to accept,” said the DEC’s Konsella.

“Our problem is many municipal wastewater systems are aged, deteriorating – or their original design capacity is being stressed by growing communities, increasing storm events and decreasing ability to absorb storm water into the local landscape.”

The estimates for fixing the situation are eyebrow-raising.

Statewide cost projections to solve the problem over the next two decades by upgrading or fixing antiquated or broken sewer infrastructure are pegged at $36.2 billion.

The figure approached $1 billion for Buffalo alone in a 2006 study.

And, to fix the entire aged sewer infrastructure in Erie County, officials are talking about even more money.

“We’re probably talking 20 years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars to be able to do this,” said John Finster, public health consultant to the Erie County Health Department who formerly served as its senior public health engineer. “Everything is very complicated in terms of solutions.”

That’s why, he said: “This is a complex problem that, on the surface, looks very simple.”

Wastewater plants are effectively receiving waste, treating it and releasing “highly treated effluent” into the lake waters, according to experts including Finster.

But somewhere along the line, massive amounts of sewage are still getting into the lake waters.

That’s why the county, using state and federal grant money, has employed a multifaceted strategy to deal with the problem.

The Health Department, which just a decade ago conducted beach water sampling once or twice a week, now tests daily.

Construction is also under way on 16 separate weather stations designed to provide data from six public beaches and 10 more sites from around the watershed to help determine, as Finster put it, “which beach to close when.”

The department is also only one of a few statewide – State Parks and New York City are others – to act pre-emptively to shut down beaches in anticipation of a storm.

If a storm with greater than a half-inch of rain is expected, Erie County officials close the beach until a water sample – usually available within 24 hours – proves the water is within quality guidelines.

“Our policy has been very conservative,” said Finster, who admitted that sometimes beaches get closed when they might be below the threshold for bacteria, as a precaution.

“We will put public health above the enjoyment of the beaches.”

Closings are frustrating

That doesn’t make life any easier for folks like Martin C. Denecke, director of recreation in Hamburg.

Denecke and his staff of lifeguards are the ones who have to break the news to beachgoers that the town-operated Woodlawn Beach State Park and Hamburg Town Beach are going to be closed, when conditions warrant.

“It is very aggravating and disappointing, and it causes anger for the patrons,” Denecke said. “It’s very disappointing when you’ve got your car loaded up with children and they’re looking forward to playing in the water and it’s not a possibility.”

Sometimes, Denecke said, people even suggest the town should “just look the other way” and let them in the water anyway at times of closure.

“We go by the letter of the law,” he said. “We’re not going to put them at risk by not following a safety rule.”

Hamburg, in many ways, is on the front lines of the problem.

Woodlawn Beach was closed 14 days during the summer of 2012, according to reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Beach Advisory and Closing Online Notification system. That was a good year.

The year before, it was shuttered 26 total days between June and September. Nearby, Hamburg Town Beach was closed 14 times last year as well and 23 times in 2011.

In Evans, Bennett Beach was closed once, while the beach at Evans Town Park was shut down four times, and Wendt Beach eight, the same reports showed.

“The farther you go into the more densely urban areas, the worse the problem gets,” Finster said. “There’s that much more sewage and that much more contamination.”

Reporting overflows

On May 1, the state’s Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act took effect.

The law requires that untreated and partially treated discharges from publicly owned sewer systems that are “not in accordance with an approved plan or permit” be reported within two hours to the DEC and local Health Department. The DEC is now developing regulations and a process for reporting that information publicly.

And with good reason.

Previously, notifications were made within two hours of the discharge to the DEC and state Health Department only if it occurred near a public drinking water intake, bathing beach or beds of shellfish.

Also, given the changing climate, future sewage overflows could increase.

Following Superstorm Sandy last fall, 11 billion gallons of sewage overflowed into waterways on the East Coast, according to Alyson Kenward, a senior scientist at Climate Central who recently authored a study.

Inland waters – like the Great Lakes – are just as vulnerable to climate change and inadequate wastewater infrastructure, Kenward said.

Cities like Buffalo, Dunkirk and Niagara Falls – where there are combined storm and wastewater sewers – will likely be increasingly vulnerable to more overflows of raw sewage into area waterways.

“Going forward in coming decades, forecasts are for more and more incidents of heavy rainfall ... in the Midwest and Northeast,” said Kenward. “Combined sewage systems are going to be more susceptible to heavy overflows.”

The situation is grave, agrees Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

And not just for our region. “The sewage overflow issue we’re dealing with in Western New York is not unique to Western New York, they’re happening all over the Great Lakes,” Jedlicka said.

“It is a problem, but it’s a problem that is being addressed.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com