‘Big victory’ for Buffalo water quality

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

The Buffalo Sewer Authority will spend $380 million on upgrades to its century-old sewer system over the next 20 years that will drastically reduce the amount of raw sewage and untreated stormwater flowing into the Niagara River and its tributaries.

The authority agreed to the improvements under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency, which determined in 2004 that the city was violating the Clean Water Act.

“This is a big victory,” said Judith Enck, EPA’s administrator for Region 2 that includes New York.

“We think this formal agreement will make a big difference in terms of improving water quality in the Buffalo area and finally getting this area in compliance with the Clean Water Act,” she said.

The city’s sewer system carries both raw sewage from homes and buildings and stormwater into a single pipe to the Bird Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Heavy rain and snowmelt can overwhelm the system, sending raw sewage and untreated runoff into local waterways. These overflows also contain debris, toxic pollutants and untreated industrial waste that hurt water quality and close beaches.

About 1.75 billion gallons of raw sewage and untreated stormwater overflows into the Niagara River and its tributaries each year. Enck said the projects reduce the overflows by 70 percent or 1.2 billion gallons per year.

There are 58 overflow outfalls combined in the Niagara River, Black Rock Canal, Erie Basin, Buffalo River, Scajaquada Creek, Cazenovia Creek and Cornelius Creek. The sewer overflows are part of the reason for a fishing advisory in the Niagara River, Enck said.

“This is a big deal for water quality in the Niagara River,” Enck said.

A sewer overflow in Black Rock Canal near Lasalle Park in Buffalo turns the water brown. (Photo courtesy of Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper)

A sewer overflow in Black Rock Canal near Lasalle Park in Buffalo turns the water brown. (Photo courtesy of Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper)

A quarter of the $380 million is earmarked for green infrastructure projects such as rain gardens, impervious surfaces, green roofs and rain barrels that keep stormwater out of the sewer system.

The improvements will be paid for by a combination of government loans and grants and rate increases paid by sewer authority customers. It’s unclear how much more customers will pay and authority officials wouldn’t comment when contacted today. Authority officials were also absent today when the EPA announced the agreement.

“I think the 20 year compliance period is recognizing the severe economic challenges that Buffalo faces,” Enck said. “This is a very realistic strategy.”

The EPA has wrangled with the authority since 2004 on reducing sewer overflows. In 2012 the EPA issued a compliance order to force the authority to develop a long-term control plan for its aging sewer system, a requirement of the Clean Water Act.

Construction started in March and the final project is scheduled to finish in 2034. The authority will complete more than 20 projects over that period.

A list of the projects with scheduled start dates is here and each one is explained here.