Obama’s budget a setback to sewer upgrades

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

Projects that keep billions of gallons of raw sewage out of Western New York waterways are at risk if Congress approves a budget that slashes aid for states burdened with antiquated sewer infrastructure.

Cities and suburbs with outdated sewer systems require billions of dollars in improvements to combat the pollution from sewer overflows usually caused by heavy rain or snowmelt.

In Buffalo, anywhere from 1.7 billion to 4 billion gallons of raw sewage polluted local waterways each of the past three years.

In comparison, the bankrupt city of Detroit dumped 7 billion gallons of raw sewage into waterways in 2011. Cleveland reached 4.5 billion gallons that same year.

In Erie County, 88 million gallons of sewage spewed into local waterways since May.

These overflows close beacheskill fish and contaminate shellfish.

Efforts to resolve the problem have benefited from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The fund provided New York $159 million in low-interest loans for water quality projects last year. In 2004, the funding helped Buffalo complete $22 million in sewer upgrades.

However, President Obama proposes to cut the program by $350 million. If the budget passes, the fund would total $1.018 billion, which is a quarter less than this year.

“We need a fully funded Clean Water State Revolving Fund to enable communities like Buffalo to fix its aging and failing sewage infrastructure,” said Brian Smith, a spokesman for the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment. He was in Washington, D.C., today to urge congressmen to invest more money into the program.

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.

Buffalo needs about $350 million in new infrastructure to capture 97 percent of  its sewer overflows. The Buffalo Sewer Authority’s long-term control plan says it will take almost two decades to complete the projects, a third of which use green infrastructure such as rain gardens, rain barrels that collect water from downspouts and pavement that lets water pass through to the ground.

“We must stop sewage from polluting the lakes, closing beaches, and killing fish,” Smith said.

“Particularly as we restore the waterfront and increase access to the lake, it is essential that our water is not fouled with harmful sewage pollution. Cutting funding now will only cost us more later, because projects will get harder and more expensive the longer we wait.”

There’s more potential bad news that impacts the Great Lakes.

Obama’s proposed budget also includes a $25 million cut to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, reducing its funding to $275 million next year. That program combats invasive species and water pollution.

Read Jerry Zremski’s story for a broader look at Obama’s proposed budget.