Blogs > Water Quality > Context for the news about Capital District sewage overflows

Context for the news about Capital District sewage overflows

A failure by Albany and Troy to utilize the NY-Alert system to notify the public about combined sewer overflows July 4 weekend has prompted a flurry of news reports, including some featuring Riverkeeper.

Riverkeeper lobbied for the creation of the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law, which was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012 and fully implemented in 2016. The law is important so people can be made aware when raw or partially treated sewage is released to water – which happens at a frequency most people find startling. It’s also important because as more people become aware of the issue, they support the spending necessary to reduce and stop overflows and leaks that plague our aging wastewater infrastructure.

The risk from exposure to sewage-contaminated water primarily comes from ingestion or full body immersion, though skin rashes could be possible if water quality is especially poor due to presence of pathogens associated with sewage. Of course, each person has a different susceptibility, and so those with compromised immune systems or other health conditions may be at greater risk. Children and the elderly are at greater risk. The most common illnesses that result from exposure to poor water quality during “primary contact recreation” – swimming, tubing, jet-skiing, child water play, etc. – would be gastrointestinal symptoms. But of course some serious illnesses can also be spread – that’s why we’ve spent decades or centuries removing untreated wastewater from drinking water sources.

And, of course, water quality is only one factor in safety when it comes to swimming or other recreation in or on the water. Weather, currents, boat traffic, and other factors are equally or more important.

Here’s some context to help guide our understanding of the news.

 

Reporting sewage overflows is important. Reports allow people to take precautions before entering the water. It’s the law. It should have happened in this case.

All communities should already be on notice that it’s their responsibility to report overflows and leaks. This is a reminder.

Dumping raw sewage is an affront to public health and the environment. It shouldn’t happen.

 

Albany and Troy didn’t completely fail to notify the public. The overflows were reported in realtime via an innovative website, albanypool.org that was put into use in part as a result of Riverkeeper’s advocacy on the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Long Term Control Plan for six Capital District communities, including Troy and Albany, that is to reduce overflows by 50% through $136 million in investments over 15 years. The website uses models to predict when rainfall is sufficient to cause an overflow from one or more of the 90-plus pipes that discharge raw sewage and street water to the Hudson when it rains.

The communities failed to use the NY-Alert system, which means that people who have signed up to receive Sewage Pollution Right to Know alerts via email or text weren’t alerted. That should have happened, because it puts the information front and center in realtime for those using the water.

The communities blamed their failure to report on staff vacations for the July 4 holiday, and a failure to delegate responsibilities adequately for reporting overflows. While not an excuse, communities in many cases face severe staffing shortages at the same time they face greater responsibilities for compliance. For example, one community’s water department has been asked to mow lawns because DPW staff has been reduced, limiting time for water and sewer improvements, drinking source water protection, and other essential tasks.

The big problem is the overflows themselves. People who have been receiving those alerts will likely have noticed that they come frequently anytime it rains. In my inbox are well over two dozen alerts associated with rains since July 3, with overflows reported in Albany, Troy, Newburgh, Kingston, Catskill, Hudson, Westchester County, Fort Edward and New York City. Many communities have have reported repeated overflows in this time period.

These communities are, to one degree or another, under Clean Water Act compliance orders by the Department of Environmental Conservation to upgrade and improve sewage treatment to avoid these rain-related overflows, but those improvements will take place over 10-15 years in most cases. So while we can expect improved water quality over time, it will be a slow and expensive process to complete those upgrades. Even at completion of those projects, there will still be overflows, but fewer of them. There are also communities that don’t have combined sewers, but which still have sewer leaks, illicit connections to storm drains, pump station failures or other infrastructure problems that cause water pollution, due to our aging infrastructure.

The estimated price tab for water infrastructure improvements needed in New York State – for both wastewater and drinking water systems – tops $80 billion. Even that number is a significant under-estimate, given that nearly 70% of communities in the Hudson River Estuary Watershed that have municipal wastewater infrastructure have not defined projects or their costs sufficiently to be counted.

New York State created the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act in 2015 and the Clean Water Infrastructure Act in 2017 to start to provide more grants to communities to make the investments needed to keep our waters free of sewage. These are important investments the Governor and Legislature deserve credit for. We’ll need to make sure we sustain and increase them over time, to meet the need.

 

Our water quality data suggests broader problems in some areas. For much more detailed information about water quality in the Hudson and several of its tributaries, see our water quality data online or read our latest reports providing more context to that data. Riverkeeper and our partners, using the power of community science, gather water samples at more locations – over 425 per month – than any comparable effort. One startling insight you’ll see in the data is that – even though the Hudson is safe for swimming in most places, at most times – there are many time when water quality fails to meet federal guidelines for safe swimming, even if there’s been no Sewage Pollution Right to Know Alert. Many of the creeks and rivers that feed the Hudson, as well as some urban shorelines, can have poor water quality, even in the absence of combined sewer overflows or obvious sewage treatment failures. Leaks, stormwater-related pollution, and contributions from failing septic systems, farms, wildlife or other sources contribute to the problem of pathogen pollution in our waters. Addressing these water quality challenges will take a sustained watershed-based approach.

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