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ACTION & REACTION: Public Outcry Over Sewage Results In Change

Last month, nearly seven million gallons of untreated sewage water were discharged into Scajaquada Creek.

And that was just in one fourteen hour period.

According to the EPA, Buffalo’s combined sewer system contributes over 1.75 billion gallons of sewage overflow to the Niagara River and its tributaries each year.

You read it right. That’s billion with a “b.”

Nobody wants to swim in a toilet. Yet, for many Western New Yorkers, that’s exactly what happens when they recreate along area beaches, lakes, rivers, and creeks in the days following heavy rains. Woodlawn Beach on Lake Erie in Hamburg, New York, was closed to swimming 38 days in 2013 and 41 days last year between May 25 and Aug. 29. There were 19 days in 2014 when swimming was banned due to elevated levels of bacteria. Pre-emptive bans were implemented on 22 days based on rainfall or forecasts. Gallagher Beach on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor remains closed to swimming. Bacterial levels are simply too high, too often. That’s unacceptable.

And no doubt you’ve seen the waste floating down the Niagara River in the past few weeks. The pictures at the top of this blog and below were taken today by a riverfront resident—he says it smells as bad as it looks.

The culprit behind these discharges? Combined sanitary and storm sewer systems.

Buffalo has a combined sanitary and storm sewer system. So do many other aging cities. Combined sewers carry both sanitary waste from buildings AND snowmelt or rain water. The combination of waste and water end up going to the same water treatment facilities, through the same pipes.

Things get ugly when there’s a heavy rainstorm or when snow melts rapidly. During these periods, the volume of water in the system exceeds the capacity of the wastewater treatment plants to receive it. To prevent damage to the treatment plants, the systems are designed to flush excess wastewater directly into the environment. Right into creeks, streams, rivers or lakes. These overflows don’t just contain stormwater and untreated human waste. They contain industrial waste, medical waste, pharmaceuticals, toxic pollutants and bacteria-rich debris.

After decades of inaction, city, state, and federal authorities are finally taking steps to reduce this appalling source of pollution to our area’s waterways. Kudos to those who spoke up and helped bring about change.

The Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper organization, as well as various news outlets, including the Buffalo News, WIVB, and, did a great job focusing public attention on this issue. A number of projects are planned as a result of the attention. One project will help reduce the sewage affecting Woodlawn Beach. A number of initiatives are in place for homeowners to reduce the amount of water going into the system. Also, New York residents can now receive alerts and updates when sewage is dumped into lakes, rivers and creeks. (You can sign up After registering for alerts, select “Environmental” alerts under the “Customized Notification” option.).

It’s a perfect example of people mobilizing to bring about change.

These are good first steps. But we must continue to speak up. Why?

  • It affects the places we love. If the sun is shining in Western New York, people flock to Niawanda Park, Canalside, or Beaver Island. Tourists and locals alike ride the Maid of the Mist, fish in the waters that comprise the Niagara Watershed, kayak on the LaSalle Blueway trail, or waterski in the Niagara River. Raw sewage, bacteria, and toxic vapors all impair our ability to enjoy these resources. And that’s not even addressing the impact on fish and other creatures.

  • The consequences of NOT acting are tragic. An area soccer coach died last summer from a suspected freshwater bacterial infection he picked up at Woodlawn Beach. Erie County’s Health Commissioner noted that “[a]ny type of pathogen – bacteria, viruses or chemicals – can lead to recreational water illnesses.”

  • Immediate Steps are Needed. The changes will take a long time to implement and more immediate-term solutions must be developed. At Woodlawn Beach, for example, it took ten years of discussion, multiple scientific studies, and authorization for $16 million dollars in construction costs before the first step was ever taken.

  • Necessity is the mother of invention. Bright minds all over are proposing green initiatives that might actually work. For example, “green infrastructure,” or vegetation, soils, and other natural processes, are just a few of the environmentally friendly approaches to managing storm water.

These green initiatives can be used in place of, or alongside, more traditional methods like concrete channels and barriers. Green infrastructure can include green roofs, permeable pavement, rain collection gardens or barrels, and other surfaces or tools to soak up or store water. Wetlands can be restored. Grass can be encouraged to grow on abandoned properties that are paved or cemented. Downspouts can be disconnected.

One local initiative is called “Rain Check.” It encourages the use of creative landscaping to protect the water system. Under this program, the Buffalo Sewer Authority will install 1,000 rain barrels throughout the city free of charge. "They take the water off of the roofs, and it doesn't get into our system. You can connect a hose to the rain barrel and water your garden with that water," said David Comerford, general manager of the Buffalo Sewer Authority. (Text “Rain Check” to 877-877 if you’re interested in participating.)

Taking action is our responsibility. About 95 percent of North America's fresh water flows through the Buffalo region every day. We must keep this amazing natural resource clean and healthy. We need action. This is how we love our neighbor. It’s how we care for this planet and the natural world.

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