Home, the movie by artist-activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, is quite an amazing film about our home, Earth: how we have radically compromised its health in a very short time, and how we have to fix it quickly as our planet warms from Climate Change. You can watch the entire film at no charge on YouTube (as a gift to the public) here, though I recommend getting a hold of the Blu-ray version because the photography and music are incredible. I mention Home to open this essay on waste, sewage, and Climate Change in our region because it provides the proper perspective (“HOME is the first film that has been made using aerial-only footage.”) from which we must now view our local environmental issues. There are no environmental borders that our planet understands.
Last year I wrote “Water, sewage, and Climate Change in the Rochester, NY region” to make the case that, according to various Climate Change studies, frequent heavy rainfalls in our Rochester, NY region should be high on our priority list. My thesis was, and is, that combined sewer systems, which dominate the urban Northeast, are going to be increasingly overwhelmed by frequent heavy rains, thus spewing raw sewage into the waters where we drink and fish. Alas, it was a very warm spring last year with little rainfall and many folks probably thought it too soon to worry. This year is different. Flooding due to heavy rainfall has inundated local news: Look here, here, and here, just in case you haven’t been outside traipsing through the mud in the last month.
But despite all the high-water stories that our local news loves to march out during flooding events, none of them attempt to connect the dots to Climate Change. Here are a few major Climate studies that do connect the dots:
- Combined sewer systems, which collect and treat both municipal wastewater and stormwater, are disproportionately concentrated in the state’s older, urban areas (and particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income, minority residents). Combined sewer systems contribute to localized flooding and serious water quality problems during periods of heavy rainfall. These flooding events, known as combined sewer overflows (CSOs), are likely to become worse with more frequent heavy rainfall events under climate change. Adaptation planning needs to take into account the concerns of environmental justice communities that are affected by siting decisions and/or CSOs. (Page 68. Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID)
- “The current climate in New York State can be described as humid and continental. Key features of New York State’s climate include the following: Short-duration flooding, which can result from heavy rainfall and runoff from snowmelt, affects the entire state.” (Page 2-8, New York State Climate Action Council Climate Action Plan Interim Report (2010)
- “The decisions and strategies used to reduce greenhouse gases and protect communities from climate effects also have important health implications. For example, reducing combustion of fossil fuels as a means of reducing carbon dioxide levels may lower the levels of many harmful air pollutants, like soot. And adaptation measures such as higher capacity storm water management systems may provide the opportunity to reduce health risks from combined sewer overflow events.” (Page 25, The National Global Change Research Plan: 2012-2021 )
The Investigative Post out of Buffalo is not so shy about linking heavy rains with sewage overflows.
Ugly month for sewer overflows in Erie County For the first time, the numbers are flowing in on sewer overflows across the state and it isn’t pretty. In Erie County, almost 7 million gallons of untreated sewage were discharged into local waterways in May. This information wasn’t publicly available on the Internet until the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law went into effect last month. Based on what’s reported so far, the biggest repositories of raw sewage were Ellicott Creek (2 million gallons), Scajaquada Creek (1 million) and the Niagara River (679,000). Heavy rain or snow melt is often the cause of these overflows. The ground water seeps through cracks in the sewer pipes or enters the sanitary sewer system through footing drains, sump pumps or improperly connected downspouts. (June 11, 2013) Investigative Post
The newly passed Sewage Pollution Right to Know for New York State is going to make it easier to discover when our sewage infrastructure contaminates our water. It will also allow the public (and hopefully our intrepid media) to track where and how much untreated sewage gets away from local waste treatment plants. Though this data system is just starting up, and many waste treatment plants are not reporting, it will eventually have the affect of connecting increasing sewage overflows with heavy rains as predicted—or not. One way or the other, we will find out whether this spring’s flooding is a fluke or the new normal.
This new law might lift, Escher-like, doubts about Climate Change in this region from its two-dimensional ‘wait and see’ approach to a galvanizing three dimensions. Along with folks who suddenly find they cannot get affordable house insurance (After Sandy, a new threat: Soaring flood insurance) because Climate Change has tossed them onto a new floodplain, heavy rains overwhelming our sewer systems will turn doubters into believers.
The problem, as so artfully described in Home, is that by the time we discover those disconcerting red flags our environment has been trying to tell us for so long, we’ll have left ourselves very little time to address Climate Change. And then, “It is too late to be a pessimist.”