Clean Water – Not Such a Pipe Dream Anymore

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How cleaning our water is helping our local economy and enhancing neighborhoods.

By: Jill Jedlicka, Executive Director     

It is a common misconception that the source of our water quality challenges is the discharge pipes of our local sewer authority and other publicly-owned treatment works (POTW’s). On the contrary, Buffalo’s wastewater treatment plant is a state of the art facility with more than enough capacity to treat the region’s wastewater.

So what’s the problem?  It’s in the “combined system” of underground sanitary and stormwater pipes.  This centuries-old solution of funneling water “away”, as quickly as possible, is as antiquated as the pipes through which our water flows.  Progressive for its time for protecting human health and improving water quality, this network of hundreds of miles of pipes is no longer adequately serving its original purpose.

Sanitary wastewater is generated from inside homes and businesses and no doubt should be piped directly to a plant for treatment.  Stormwater is the rainwater or snowmelt that runs off roofs, driveways, parking lots, streets and sidewalks, etc.  As designed nearly a century ago, stormwater and sanitary wastewater often share the same pipes.  When there is a heavy rainfall or snowmelt, the pipes carrying this combined wastewater become overwhelmed.  Rather than having sewage back up into local homes and business, the combined systems are designed to trigger direct releases of sewage into area waterways.

It is as gross as it sounds, and it is typically what contributes to the beach closings in Western New York.  However, things are starting to change and additional improvements are on their way.

Fortunate to have the entirety of the Great Lakes flowing through our collective front yard, the Buffalo Niagara region is quickly becoming one of the nation’s leaders in freshwater management, protection, and Great Lakes restoration.  A new era of engineering is beginning to catch on locally that works cooperatively with nature’s water cycle, rather than bypassing it.  This water revolution is coined “green infrastructure”. It is an alternative to traditional, or “grey”, engineering solutions, and also has the added benefit of improving habitat, aesthetics and neighborhoods.

Large scale green infrastructure is an engineering solution that utilizes traditional grey functions, (i.e.: pipes and drains) but allows for much of the stormwater to be captured and, through natural filtration, released back into the groundwater aquifers through wetlands, bioswales, and retention ponds.  Small scale green infrastructure is demonstrated by many gardeners who utilize rain barrels or cisterns to collect roof runoff and re-direct it to their plantings.

Sound too good to be true?  See for yourself one of the many demonstration projects that are either underway or recently completed.  In addition to the most recent completion of the porous pavement installed on Clarendon Street and Claremont Avenue in Buffalo’s Delaware District, check out some of these projects:

  • Old Falls Street in downtown Niagara Falls
  • Crane Branch Library rain garden on Elmwood Avenue
  • Fox Tire’s green roof on Buffalo’s East Side
  • Harriman Quad on UB’s Main Street Campus
  • Nichols School green roof and rain garden

The Buffalo Sewer Authority has also planned to install rain gardens on Parkdale and Windsor Avenues near Delaware Park, as well as new stormwater planters scheduled to be installed on Elmwood Avenue this fall.  Additionally, thousands of homeowners are also taking responsibility for improving our water quality by disconnecting their downspouts and channeling roof run-off to rain barrels or into rain gardens, and there are two major community-wide demonstration projects happening in the City of Buffalo’s Hamlin Park and Old First Ward neighborhoods.

Green infrastructure is not a silver bullet solution, and many technical questions still need to be answered regarding long-term viability and maintenance.  Because Buffalo Niagara’s economic future is inextricably linked with the health and access to our fresh water embracing the region’s potential to be a national leader in this approach, could offer cascading benefits.  The Buffalo Sewer Authority’s Long Term Control Plan has an estimated price tag at ~ $300 million.  Of that total, nearly one-third, or $90 million, has been prioritized for green infrastructure solutions.  This is a major investment opportunity in community revitalization, local jobs, and clean water.

To learn more about what is happening with the water revolution, and the various simple acts that individuals can do, check out Riverkeeper’s website and our report “Green Infrastructure Solutions”   For more information contact Jessie Fisher at 852-7483 ext 36.