There are two types of sewage overflows causing the problem in Erie County. They are technically referred to as Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) and Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs). CSOs present the largest problem in the City of Buffalo and occur when rainwater flows from our lawns, parking lots, and streets and enters storm drains that empty into the same lines that carry wastewater from our homes. With this excess flow, the system is unable to contain the additional volume. Release pipes have been designed into the system to divert the untreated sewage wastewater into the nearest stream. This occurs quite often in the City of Buffalo, which releases more than 35 million gallons of untreated sewage during heavy rainstorms, through 67 pipes that empty into the Buffalo River, Scajaquada Creek, Niagara River, and even Lake Erie.

Some say that the problem isn’t that bad since the sewage is diluted with rainwater. Others say it was much worse back in the 1960s. Although not as concentrated as residential wastewater alone, these overflow pipes deliver bacteria and viruses, fecal matter, untreated industrial wastes, household chemical cleaners, toilet paper, and other wastes that can cause fish kills, gastrointestinal illness, and beach closures. And since contaminated stormwater is transported through the same pipes, runoff from our streets and lawns means that sediments, toxins from old industrial sites, metals, pesticides, fertilizers, oil, grease, nutrients, and trash are also present.

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has issued a State Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit for every CSO pipe. What this means is that they have a permit to pollute. The map in the report released by CERI will help the public identify where these points are in their neighborhood. Additionally, under the state Discharge Notification Law, the City of Buffalo will be required to post a sign notifying the public where these pipes are located. When residents know where these points are, they will be able to better avoid these areas.

The next effort will be to break from 40 years of “acceptable practice” and eliminate discharges during wet weather. Buffalo’s system was developed over decades to serve a population that peaked at 600,000 people in the 1950s and has since dwindled to half of that. Due to a shortage of funding and the age of the system, progress has been slow in Buffalo to improve the capacity and remove CSOs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that CSOs discharge 1.2 trillion gallons into American waters every year, and the agency is requiring cities to come up with long-term CSO control plans.

Although state and federal funding is available, competition for projects is intense amongst communities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Rochester, and New York City which are experiencing the same problem and are working to address it through massive infrastructure overhauls. The Buffalo Sewer Authority is currently considering hiring a lobbyist to help identify and secure further funding.

Chicago has addressed its CSO problem by diverting the flow of sewage before it reaches surface water to a retention tunnel that holds two billion gallons of wastewater. The water is held there until wet weather subsides, and it is then pumped to the sewage plant for proper treatment. Other cities, such as Rochester and New York City, are using retention pipes and holding tanks to reduce flow.

Strong policy and increased federal funding opportunities are needed to seriously reduce the flow. For now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is relying on the CSO Control Policy to control CSOs so that they do not significantly contribute to violations of water quality standards. Through new regulatory provisions, EPA is requiring all CSO communities at a minimum to implement short-term controls, known as the nine minimum technology-based controls. If these are not sufficient to meet water quality standards, a community may be required to implement more extensive long-term controls, such as building a retention tank.

Facing conventional engineering solutions that could cost as much as $500 million, Buffalo applied for and has received $250,000 from NYSERDA to determine if installing computer-controlled flow devices will help by diverting wastewater and storing it within the system. This may help since, at one time, the system served a much larger population. This method of retention is modeled after success found in Quebec.

Quebec uses a computer-controlled flow device as a “hunt and seek strategy.” What this refers to is that, when a release pipe is overflowing, the system searches for a release pipe that is currently empty. The wastewater is then diverted to the empty pipe and retained. This method, if utilized properly, can contain a majority if not all of the sewage and wastewater in the collection system until the wet whether subsides. If it doesn’t substantially reduce the amount of flow, the city will have to construct a holding facility like other cities have.

Other techniques, such as tree planting, narrowing of streets to reduce impervious pavement, parking lot infiltration islands, and buffers along streams and rivers will also help to reduce surges of storm-water. The Buffalo Sewer Authority is currently using an incremental approach to addressing this problem.

Although the Buffalo Sewer Authority is on the right track, it could be years before the public will see any real changes in water quality around Buffalo and Erie County. by William Stoner

When it rains or when the winter snow pack melts, millions of gallons of untreated sewage pour from 313 pipes around Erie County. This is an alarming problem that is rarely seen first-hand but which plagues area shorelines, destroys habitat, and leads to beach closures around the county. Since the sewage overflows occur when it rains and many of the pipes empty below the surface of the water, people don’t see the problem. The problem is highlighted in a report, “Sewage Overflows: A Discharge Map and Information on Erie County’s Foremost Urban Water Quality Problem,” recently released by Citizens Environmental Research Institute (CERI), the research and education affiliate of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which mapped areas where untreated sewage enters streams, rivers, and lakes around Erie County.