Major Sewage Spill In Lake Onondaga Underscores Need For More Resilient Water Infrastructure

By: Morgan Block

Just a couple of weeks ago, an influx of rain was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” causing a large sewer pipe to break and spill  into Onondaga Lake, near Syracuse, NY. The pipe, which is buried about eight to ten feet underground, carried sewage from the Ley Creek Pump service area to a wastewater treatment plant located on the south end of the lake. Over 7 million gallons of raw sewage, spilling at a rate of 5,000 gallons per minute, spewed into the lake as the leak lasted more than 24 hours. The pipe that broke was half a century old, and still has not been fully repaired. Shockingly, more sewage was discharged into the lake during the pipe’s initial repair after the spill.

There is a crisis in the wastewater infrastructure throughout New York State. The wastewater and sewage treatment facilities of New York are deteriorating, and nearly all of New York’s residents rely on these facilities. Many of the 610 facilities in New York are operating with inadequate technology, increasing the likelihood of contamination. Every year, more than 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage is released during combined sewer overflows during intense rain events into the New York Harbor.

Clean water is a vital necessity for industries to operate, and for people to live. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), New York’s infrastructure needs approximately $36 billion in infrastructure repairs over the next twenty years. The NYSDEC estimated that 47,500 jobs are created by each billion dollars of federal infrastructure that is spent.

Onondaga lake’s busted pipe is another example of the crumbling water infrastructure in New York State. This pipe also serves as a reminder that we need to update and preserve water infrastructure around the State in order to avoid spills like this one. If nothing is done to address the aging sewage plants, the consequences of severe NY waterbody degradation will be inevitable. One way to reverse the potential degradation is to invest in green infrastructure technologies that promote water conservation. Another way to improve infrastructure is to improve government efficiency in infrastructure planning to consider regional consolidation.

Currently, $200 million in grants from the State has been allocated for preserving and protecting  water infrastructure in New York. However, this $200 million amount is clearly not enough, as evidenced by the recent pipeline fiasco near Syracuse. The New York League of Conservation Voters is calling on the State to appropriate $800 million per year in grants and loans in order to attain that $36 billion in infrastructure repairs.