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Storms wash sewage, and much more, into rivers

Storms wash sewage, and much more, into rivers

Sewage will dissipate, but plastic lasts in the environment
Storms wash sewage, and much more, into rivers
Trash, including plastic, floats in the Mohawk River in Amsterdam on Monday.
Photographer: Photo courtesy of John Lipscomb

CAPITAL REGION -- This stormy Monday was a bad day for sewage overflows into the Mohawk and Hudson rivers.

A 100,000-gallon discharge in Amsterdam and smaller overflows at municipal sewage treatment plants in Glens Falls, Troy and Rensselaer all flowed into local rivers, though no long-term environmental damage was anticipated.

"I saw these heavy squalls were coming through, and I saw the heavy muddy flow that was coming out of the [Chuctanunda Creek] outflow. I knew what was coming out of there," said John Lipscomb, director of advocacy for Riverkeeper, who was in a boat at Riverlink Park in Amsterdam Monday doing routine water sample collection.

The release at Amsterdam was initially estimated at 2.7 million gallons over 24 hours, starting Monday morning, but the actual amount turned out to be far less -- just over 100,000 gallons -- with releases lasting less than two hours. State Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Kevin Frazier said the state alert system required the city to provide an initial estimate, usually while an event is still in progress, and refine the number later.

But Lipscomb noted that the heavy rains that swept across the Capital Region Monday also sent unmeasured amounts of "street water" and garbage, including plastics, into rivers, and those will last longer in the environment than the harmful bacteria that accompanies sewage. "Street water," he said, can include auto fluids, rubber tire dust, pet waste and other materials left in the streets.

"What really breaks my heart is the stream of plastic waste that comes out into the river ... because it lasts forever," Lipscomb said. "Plastics are a contaminant and should be regulated like a contaminant."

Overflows like those seen Monday happen when heavy rain hits older cities, where stormwater and sewage collection systems are often combined or linked, meaning the volume of stormwater overwhelms the treatment plants.

"Sadly, sewage overflow events are incredibly common statewide because of old water infrastructure that desperately needs increased state funding for repairs, replacements, and upgrades," said Elizabeth Moran, water and natural resources director at Environmental Advocates of New York. "The Capital Region alone discharges approximately 1.2 billion gallons of sewage annually into the Hudson River."

The total estimated amount of untreated sewage discharged in a year is enough to fill more than 1,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools, by one calculation.

The state's Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act requires that discharges of untreated and partially treated sewage be reported to the DEC within two hours of discovery and within four hours to the public and adjoining municipalities.

"Excessive sewage overflows are a threat to both our environment and public health," Moran said. "Taking a dip in water after a sewage overflow can expose people to nasty waterborne pathogens, parasites, and other disease-causing organisms like E.coli, giardia, and rotavirus. When people go for a swim, there's a basic expectation that the water won't make them sick, but after sewage overflows, sadly, that isn't always the case."

But Lipscomb said the impact of a sewage overflow is relatively short-term, because sewage bacteria break down in the environment.

"I look at it as an unfortunate legacy of the past," he said. "Dilution helps, but these microbes don't live forever, and untraviolet light kills them ...Those microbes get out into the river, other stuff consumes them and ultraviolet light starts to break them down. The days when microbe counts are really high are right after a rain event, but then the biological functions start to perform their functions."

Lipscomb said he didn't want to criticize Amsterdam, where he said officials are making a sincere effort to reduce the amount of combined sewage overflows. The city, which has also suffered from sewer line breaks and equipment problems, received a $1.25 million state grant in 2016, along with a $3.75 million low-interest loan, to help it deal with some of its sewer issues. DEC officials said they're working with Amsterdam on the problems.

Amsterdam is far from the only city in the Northeast to face these challenges, DEC officials noted. Environmental Advocates estimate addressing all the sewer system issues would cost about $36 billion over 20 years.

Lipscomb said that, in dry weather, the Mohawk is considered among the cleanest of the Hudson River's tributaries.

"Riverlink Park is in the heart of an older community with combined sewage, but in dry weather, it's really pretty good water quality," he said.

While Tuesday was mostly dry, more rain -- potentially heavy -- was expected Wednesday. A flood watch remains in effect for Schoharie County and western Albany County, according to the National Weather Service. Late Tuesday, the watch was extended to the Mohawk Valley and western Schenectady County.

"Heavy rain showers produced up to 4 inches of rain since Saturday night," stated the National Weather Service website. "Soils will begin to saturate with additional scattered showers and isolated thunderstorms tonight, and with more numerous showers and thunderstorms Wednesday and the potential for same areas to receive up to an inch of rain per hour."

"Tomorrow looks like there will be pretty widespread rain and thunderstorms, with some pretty heavy rain," National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Thompson said Tuesday afternoon.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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