Every year, 1.75 billion gallons of untreated sanitary and storm sewage overflows into the Niagara River from the Buffalo Sewer Authority.
That figure should drop by more than 70 percent over the next two decades under a binding legal agreement struck between the sewer authority and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that commits the authority to investing $380 million in infrastructure improvements to the city’s sewage system, federal officials announced Monday.
“This is a big deal for water quality in the Niagara River,” said Judith A. Enck, the EPA’s regional administrator, during a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon. “This is a big victory for the city of Buffalo. This has taken a lot of work over a long period of time.”
EPA officials and their counterparts from the state Department of Environmental Conservation gave their approval to the authority’s plan for reducing the amount of sewage and stormwater overflowing from the city’s system, Enck said. The authority is under a 2012 EPA order to comply with federal clean water regulations, which provided the impetus for this long-term control plan.
“This is not just a short memo,” said Enck. “This is a very, very detailed, long-term control plan that has been negotiated.”
“This plan is an important step in achieving cleaner, healthier and more vibrant waters in the city of Buffalo,” added DEC Commissioner Joe Martens.
Enck said plans call for the sewer authority to implement “a series of projects that will improve water quality in the Niagara River and its tributaries.” Of those projects, about one-quarter will include “green infrastructure” efforts designed to “soak up and store stormwater” that would, if left unchecked, only add to the amount of sewage overflows into area waterways during times of heavy rain or snow melt events.
“It is happening in phases and it is happening over 20 years,” said Enck.
Like many “older cities” in the region, Buffalo has a combined sewer system, which means all of the stormwater run-off and sanitary sewage combine on their way to treatment plants. When the volume becomes too much for the plants to handle, they are allowed to “overflow” untreated into area waterways to prevent damage to the plant’s infrastructure.
That means that during heavy rains and during quick snow melts, it is common for Buffalo sewers to overflow human and industrial waste into the Niagara River. In an average year, nearly 2 billion gallons of untreated sewage overflows from Buffalo’s combined sewers.
“That is a lot of sewage overflowing into our treasured waterbodies,” said Enck. “This has been going on for years and it must be reversed.”
Enck said the EPA believes that the 20-year time frame allows for “a very realistic strategy” for solving the problem to occur, given the economic constraints on the city. Although there will be some state and federal money available to the authority to help defray the overall price tag, it’s likely some costs will have to come from local fees or taxes. How much remains to be seen, officials said.
Besides improvements to traditional sewage infrastructure in places like its treatment plant at Bird Island where $41 million in upgrades will be made to increase capacity, some of the other improvements include an $18 million construction of a “floatable control facility” at the Hamburg drain to control “large floating debris” from entering the river and a storage facility at Smith Street designed to cut overflows of raw sewage at a cost of $8 million, EPA officials said.
About $93 million will be allocated to “green infrastructure” efforts to help keep stormwater out of the sewer system to help reduce overflows. Enck called green infrastructure efforts an “effective, efficient way of managing storm water.”
Those projects include rain gardens, permeable pavements and rain barrels that collect, disperse or at least significantly delay stormwaters from overwhelming the sewer system.