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Sewage still flowing into local rivers

Sewage still flowing into local rivers

Environmentalists push for $2.5 billion to go into the state budget
Sewage still flowing into local rivers
The Mohawk River seen at Schenectady's Riverside Park in 2016.
Photographer: Marc SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

CAPITAL REGION — More than 500,000 gallons of raw or partially treated sewage flowed into the Mohawk River in 2017-2018, and around two billion gallons went into the Hudson – a significant amount of it from Capital Region communities.

Those recently released figures from the state Department of Environmental Conservation are being highlighted by environmental advocacy groups as they push for inclusion of an additional $2.5 billion for water and wastewater infrastructure grants in the new state budget, which is due April 1.

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January pledged $2.5 billion for water and wastewater infrastrucure, when details emerged, it turned out to be a pledge of $500 million per year for each of the next five years – and environmental groups would like to see it all this year.

"With 2.5 billion gallons of sewage being released to the Hudson River Watershed, we’re asking the Governor and Legislature to commit to another $2.5 billion to reduce this scourge," said Dan Shapley, water quality program director with Riverkeeper, a Poughkeepsie-based environmental group.

Most of the sewage flow occurs during storms or heavy snowmelt when municipal sewage collection systems are overwhelmed with water.

Riverkeeper on Thursday released a separate report highlighting whether the Mohawk is considered swimmable, based on the organization's bacterial sampling at 35 locations on the river and its major tributaries throughout the year. The report found most sports on the river are swimmable about half the time – an improvement over previous years.

"The Mohawk is getting better. These results show that when we invest to fix our pipes, the result is clean water," Shapley said.

The 11th annual Mohawk Watershed Symposium, devoted to issues facing the river, takes place Friday at Union College. DEC is expected to announce a new watershed management plan at the symposium.

The DEC Sewage Pollution Right-to-Know annual summary covers April 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018, meaning some recent events, like a 1.5 million gallon spill in Amsterdam last summer, are not included in the data. The Sewage Pollution Right-to-Know law, in place since 2013, requires municipalities to report sewage discharges to DEC and the public within hours of when they occur, and to estimate the amount discharged.

While communities can face fines in some cases, DEC also often uses the information to pressure communities to make improvements that will address the problems.

Overall, DEC estimates 6.25 billion gallons were discharged into New York waterways during that period, with the Hudson receiving the most discharges. For the 12-month period, there were about 2,550 reported municipal wastewater discharges statewide.

DEC says the primary cause of untreated sewage discharges across the state remains rain and snow melt running into the combined stormwater-sewer systems in older communities, overwhelming the capacities of their sewage treatment plants.

"These types of overflow events are preventable and correctable by removing storm water and other illegal connections to the sanitary sewers, separating combined sewers, sealing defective manholes and replacing or rehabilitating broken sewer pipes," the DEC report says.

That's where the need for funding comes in. The backlog of needed projects would cost in the tens of billions. While environmental groups acknowledge there's been progress, they say more funding is needed.

"Investments in infrastructure are paying off – communties are fixing their pipes and protecting their water. But we have to keep this momentum going," said Rob Hayes, clean water associate at Environmental Advocates of New York in Albany and author of a recent report called "Untapped Potential: Water Infrastructure Spending in New York."

That report estimates there are 22,000 miles of municipal sewer pipe in the state, and about one-third of that pipe is more than 60 years old, meaning it has exceeded its expected lifespan.

In a statement on Thursday, DEC officials said the state is making major commitments across the state, including in the Mohawk watershed.

"New York leads the nation with the largest annual investment in water-quality infrastructure of any state," the agency said. "The Governor’s 2019-2020 Executive Budget Proposal builds upon those significant investments with a proposal to boost the historic $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017 by another $2.5 billion over the next five years, bringing the total to $5 billion to support programs to assist communities with upgrading clean water infrastructure. This is the largest grant program of its kind in the United States."

The state separately offers communities low- and zero-interest loans for municipal wastewater projects, DEC officials noted.

DEC said it has provided $13.4 million in water or wastewater grants to Mohawk Valley communities since 2015, and the Environmental Facilities Corp. has provided $21 million in loans.

In late 2017, Amsterdam, Fonda and St. Johnsville all received grants for infrastructure construction projects. In late 2018, Cuomo announced similar grants to Schenectady (for the new Ferry Street pump station), Duanesburg, and the Albany Water Finance Authority, which aids a pool of communities in Albany and Rensselaer counties that all discharge wastewater into the Hudson.

Smaller DEC grants have been awarded recently for infrastructure engineering and planning, which could lay the groundwork for infrastructure replacement or construction.

Those grants include $50,000 to Schenectady to study how the city can address sewer overflows; $30,000 to Rotterdam to study how to address stormwater inflow/infiltration issues; $30,000 to Glenville to study developing a new sewage treatment plant and extend collection to unsewered areas; and $30,000 to the Montgomery County village of Nelliston for an an inflow/infiltration study.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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