E. coli is a nasty waterborne bacteria that can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Authorities close beaches when levels exceed safety limits. But they’re doing next to nothing about unsafe readings in other local waterways.
There’s a particular problem with the Black Rock Canal, popular with fishermen, the occasional swimmer and, most notably, the West Side Rowing Club and high school and college crew teams. E. coli readings consistently exceed safe limits — by up to 14 times — established by the federal government.
“There are people coming in contact with water with E. coli from human feces every single day,” Wendy Paterson of the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper told Investigative Post.
Unsafe E. coli readings aren’t limited to the Black Rock Canal:
- Levels this spring in the Buffalo River — in front of Buffalo Riverworks, a popular restaurant and event complex — exceeded the safe threshold by 13 times. One test last year registered 85 times the acceptable limit.
- Readings taken earlier this summer in Cazenovia Creek exceeded the acceptable limit by up to twentyfold. Last year, one test came in at 85 times above the safe level.
- A half-mile downstream from where the Black Rock Canal flows into the Niagara River, readings were 43 times the safe limit at Black Rock Canal Park, located at the foot of Ontario Street. The park serves as a boat launch, among other uses.
- Readings taken this year in six other waterways, many of them used for recreation, also exceeded the safety threshold. Among them are Scajaquada, Ellicott and Eighteen Mile creeks.
The problem in Buffalo and some other municipalities is rooted in the design of their sewer systems. They combine untreated sewage and stormwater runoff. When the systems can’t handle the volume, the excess is dumped into local waterways.
As a result, E. coli levels spike when it rains. In dry weather, they abate. But that’s not happening this year in Black Rock Canal.
Waterkeeper sampled the water eight times, and all eight times the readings exceeded safe levels. The 11 sewage discharge points along the 3.5-mile canal may have something to do with it.
“It is concerning,” Paterson said. “There’s no rain, there’s no stormwater, there’s no reason for an overflow. Why is there sewage?”
It’s a question authorities aren’t doing much to answer, at least in the short-run.
The Erie County Department of Health said its water-quality jurisdiction is limited to beaches. The state Department of the Environmental Conservation wouldn’t discuss the issue with Investigative Post.
The Buffalo Sewer Authority, whose system empties sewage into city waterways, has a long-term plan in place to reduce overflows, but it has done only a limited evaluation and taken no action to address the current E. coli situation.
Two other municipalities — nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake and Washington, D.C. — have a similar problem that they’ve investigated. They both came to the same conclusion: their sewage systems were deteriorating and leaching E. coli into their waterways.
That could very well be the case in Buffalo, given the age and design of the city’s sewer system. The Buffalo Sewer Authority has plans in place to reduce stormwater and sewage overflows that will cost $380 million and take until 2034 to complete. Other costly improvements, including the wholesale replacement of aging sewer lines, are not included in the plan.
In other words, a solution to the E. coli problem could be years away unless authorities can find a short-term solution.
Unsafe levels in most waterways
Waterkeeper this year has tested the water quality of 11 rivers, creeks, streams and lakes in Erie and Niagara counties. Fifty-four of 117 samples found E. coli at unsafe levels. High readings were found at least once in all the water bodies except one, Hoyt Lake in Delaware Park.
E.Coli readings in 2021
|Water body||County||Highest reading above safe level|
|Cornelius Creek @ Black Rock Canal Park||Erie||43 times the limit|
|Scajaquada Creek @ West Avenue Bridge||Erie||23|
|Woods Creek @ Buckhorn Island Park||Erie||21|
|Cazenovia Creek @ Southside Parkway||Erie||20|
|Ellicott Creek @ Niagara Falls Boulevard||Erie||14|
|Black Rock Canal @ Broderick Park||Erie||14|
|Buffalo River @ Riverfest Park||Erie||13|
|Hyde Park Lake @ Robbins Drive Bridge||Niagara||9|
|Eighteen Mile Creek @ Eckhardt Road||Erie||3|
|Little Niagara River @ Griffon Park||Niagara||3|
|Hoyt Lake @ Delaware Park||Erie||0|
Source: Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper.
Last year, Waterkeeper tested eight waterways. Seven of them recorded unsafe E. coli levels at least once. The highest were in Cazenovia Creek and the Buffalo River.
Human and animal waste is a source of E. coli. Human feces enter into creeks and rivers when sewer systems discharge into waterways when rainfalls swamp the system. Animal waste can come from domestic pets — mostly dogs — and wildlife such as deer in rural areas.
“The results for Black Rock Canal at Broderick Park was that it was likely from human and dog guts,” said Paterson of Riverkeeper.
No short-term solutions planned
A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation said the agency is aware of the sampling efforts, but has not reviewed the Waterkeeper’s “quality assurance plans” and declined to comment further.
Kara Kane, spokeswoman for the Erie County Department of Health, said the canal isn’t under the county’s watch.
“Our program only includes public swimming areas,” she said in an email.
She referred questions about the canal to the DEC.
Buffalo Sewer Authority General manager Oluwole “O.J.” McFoy refused an interview request from Investigative Post. In an exchange of emails, he said the authority is aware of the high E. coli levels in the Black Rock Canal.
“Of course we are concerned and have spoken to our partners at Waterkeeper on multiple occasions regarding elevated E. coli levels in the vicinity of the Black Rock Canal,” he wrote.
“Site inspections and internal pipe evaluations have been conducted for sewer mains in the vicinity of the canal near Broderick Park.”
At least one 12-inch pipe along the canal is not seeping sewage “and therefore is not a contributing factor to any observed fecal levels,” McFoy said.
In short, the source of the problem has not been identified.
Findings in other locales
Two municipalities with a similar problem determined corroded sewer lines were the cause.
A 2019 report from GM Blueplan came to that conclusion for Queen’s Royal Beach in Niagara-on-the-Lake. One local newspaper, Lake Report, wrote, “The worst culprits are broken, disused and inappropriately connected sewer pipes, which have led to an expensive and serious crisis.”
Likewise, a report this spring concluded that large sections of Washington, D.C.’s sewer system have deteriorated to the point that sewage is seeping into Rock Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, which flows into Chesapeake Bay.
“It’s been an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem,” said Marchant Wentworth, whose firm conducted the study of the degraded infrastructure.
“We knew there were high bacterial levels. The question was — with all this work and all these rules and regulations — why was it still so polluted?” he said.
“I think the answer was a leaking sewer system.”