Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions
Campaigns:

CCE IN THE NEWS

Source: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

New for your phone: Sewage pollution alerts

BY STEVE ORR
STAFF WRITER

Posted: July 6, 2015
Originally Published: July 5, 2015

More than 10 million gallons of raw sewage and storm water gushed into the Genesee River early in the morning on June 2, the result of hours of rain that taxed Rochester's sewers.

But there was no public announcement, and very few people knew the discharge had occurred.

Next time, it might be different — because now, there's an instant-message system that can let people know their local waterway's been fouled.

Aging or undersized sewer systems dump billions of gallons into the state's lakes, bays and creeks every year.

For years, environmental advocates complained about the untreated wastewater that enters New York waterways and argued that people deserved to know about those discharges before they made plans to go swimming, wading or boating.

State lawmakers eventually agreed, passing the Sewage Pollution Right to Know law in 2012.

But it took until this year for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to come up with a way to get those warnings to the public quickly: NY-Alert, a free state-run notification system that which now will send texts messages or emails about sewage discharges to anyone who's signed up for them.

There's an app for that now.

NY-Alert has replaced a web-based notification system that was both incomplete and outdated.

"I think we're moving in the right direction," said Sarah Eckel, legislative and policy director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which lobbied hard for the right-to-know law. "There have been bumps in the road, but I think the DEC is working diligently…to get to a place where we can get accurate (discharge) numbers."

The DEC has scheduled public meetings in Rochester and elsewhere in the state to introduce the use of NY-Alert to track sewage discharges. The meeting here will be held Wednesday, July 15 at Monroe Community College's Brighton campus.

"In developing the NY-Alert notifications for sewer discharges, DEC strived to find a way to provide New Yorkers with free and easy access to this information while minimizing the burden to municipalities," DEC commissioner Joe Martens said in a statement announcing the meetings. "With the NY-Alert system in place, information can now be provided to residents in a timely manner."

Nearly 2,700 discharges of sewage into New York rivers, lakes and bays were reported between May 2013 and early June of 2015. More than half of them were in Erie County, which has woefully inadequate sewers.

About 25 of them have been in Monroe County. Only a few of that number involved the huge tunnels deep below city streets built to store both sewage and storm water awaiting treatment.

While sanitary sewers that collect waste from homes and businesses can and do overflow, a bigger problem in some communities are overflows of combined sewers. These systems, which exist in older central cities, gather both sanitary waste and rainwater and melted snow that flows into gutters and street grates.

They frequently fill to overflowing when it rains, and the excess has to go somewhere. In many cities, that excess is released automatically into creeks, lakes and bays, often leaving them a smelly mess.

Over the objections of environmentalists, the DEC has not been requiring combined-sewer operators to report overflows — because many of the older city sewer systems aren't equipped to monitor those overflows and calculate the size of the discharge.

The agency is now encouraging combined-sewer operators to use NY-Alert to publicize wet-weather overflows — though it is not flat-out requiring it. The DEC said it also is working with some communities that are creating their own web-based notification systems.

The state Legislature also has provided $500,000 to help operators install monitoring equipment or devise models to estimate the quantity being released.

"That will help eight to 10 medium-sized combined-sewer communities," Eckel said. "But there are about 50 in New York state. We need the legislature to continue to help these communities get these resources in place."

Monroe County is one community that doesn't need that grant money. Its tunnel system, built decades ago and still the envy of nearly every other New York city, are fully monitored already.

That tunnels have enough storage capacity that its emergency outfalls into the Genese River and Irondequoit Bay are seldom needed. There have been just 33 overflow events in the decade that ended last year, according to information supplied by the county.

"Compared to other communities, Monroe County is well positioned to deal with stormwater. We don't have nearly the problem as other places," said Justin Roj, the county's deputy director of environmental services.

The law requires sewer systems to report releases to the DEC within two hours, and to the public within four hours. The latter reporting window was considered impractical and not enforced, however, until the NY-Alert system went into use for sewer overflows earlier this year.

The system hadn't been publicized much before now, and it isn't clear how many sewer systems are now using it and how many citizens have signed up to get notifications.

Roj said Monroe County is committed to using NY-Alert, which it has done once so far this year.

That was June 2. Tunnels under the east side of Rochester filled to capacity shortly after 12 midnight and began releasing excess into the river through two big outfall tunnels at the bottom of the river gorge below Seneca Park.

At 1:15 a.m., west side tunnels filled and releases began through another pair of outfalls below Maplewood Park.

The releases didn't end until nearly 2:30 a.m. Six hours later, messages went out via NY-Alert.

Holly Anderson, who lives in Webster near the Lake Ontario shoreline, was one of the few people to get them.

Anderson said she stumbled on the environmental section of NY-Alert when she was signing up for a different kind of warning.

She appreciates getting the word on June 2.

"My family has been swimming in the lake for years and years. My husband grew up on the lake. We currently have a cottage on … Port Bay in Wayne County," she said. "We care very much about the lake and water quality in general."

SORR@DemocratandChronicle.com

To learn more

  • The Department of Environmental Conservation will hold a public meeting on the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law and the use of NY-Alert on Wednesday, July 15 at 7 p.m. It will be held in Monroe Community College's Warshof Conference Center, which is located in the R. Thomas Flynn Campus Center at 1000 East Henrietta Road.
  • Anyone may sign up for notices of many sorts of events, including sewer overflows, at www.NYAlert.com. The overflow notices are part of the environmental category of alerts.