My take-home message from a talk by the Monroe County Sewer Authority (Pure Waters) (at a neighborhood association meeting) was that our sewer system is very healthy as long as you don’t believe in Climate Change. Our sewer system is the envy of many surrounding communities like Buffalo because of our Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Program (CSOAP) program and the ‘tunnel system’. This is to say, when there have been heavy wet weather events, we tend not to discharge raw sewage into our rivers and lakes—as other communities do.
Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Program (CSOAP) events have all but been eliminated with the phasing in of the deep rock tunnel system unique to Monroe County. This tunnel system allowed the integration of approximately 25 smaller sewage treatment plants into the Monroe County system. The lab monitors the improvement in the surrounding environment and the positive impact of this program. CSOAP and Wet Weather Events
The operative phrase here is ‘where there have been,’ meaning our system can and has dealt with most current and historical heavy rainfall events successfully (there are a few, and increasingly more, overflows each year). The continuing issues with basement sewer backups and water pooling in our streets after heavy rains has more to do with the 100-year-old sewer pipe system or blockages in any one of our 80,000 catch basins, than advances made in the 1970’s for combined sewer overflow problems. Combined sewer overflow systems which proliferate around the Great Lakes basin take away both sewage and storm water. They work fine until more frequent heavy rainfalls overwhelm the systems, at which point raw sewage gets sent (mostly) untreated into our rivers and streams.
The problem is that Pure Waters also mentioned that according to their rain gauges we have received significantly more rainfall than what historical data would predict. This is code for Climate Change, as this is precisely what climate studies like ClimAID suggest: “Climate hazards of particular relevance as detailed by the Ecosystems sector are … increased frequency of heavy rainfall events …” (Pg. 9 Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID))
To be clear, Monroe County (and Rochester) ‘has greatly reduced’ overflow events:
These discharge events are referred to as combined sewer overflows. As would be expected, this sewage contains pathogens (disease-causing agents), excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous), metals, and large debris that can harm aquatic organisms as well as curtail recreational use of waterways. In New York State, more than 60 municipalities have sewage systems that generate combined sewer overflows, and most are located in major cities (NYSDEC, 2008). The City of Rochester has greatly reduced these events; the cities of Buffalo and Syracuse are in the process of implementing mitigation plans. (Pg. 94 (ClimAID))
But when asked (by me) about the rainfall patterns coming with Climate Change for our region, Pure Waters was mum. This leads me to infer that our region is satisfied with measures to deal with current and historical rainfalls events, but we are simply not connecting the dots with Climate Change. Which is to ask, are we properly preparing and planning for the consequences of Climate Change in our region? We don’t know because despite the attention Climate Change has received nationwide and worldwide, neither the City of Rochester nor the County of Monroe mentions Climate Change much.
For whatever reason--politics, other concerns, not-being-grilled-by-the-media, whatever—our leaders are not leading on Climate Change. Climate Change is about planning. If you’re just relying on historical data to plan for the future, you’re delusional. Just focusing on the present viability of Monroe County’s sewer system, especially in the presence of data indicating a worrying trend, is like watching someone peeing into the water at the other end of the pool where you’re swimming and thinking it won’t matter to you.
The results of the mid-term elections suggest that it is more likely that those politicians already squirming on Climate Change will be more squirmy, and less likely to talk about, address, or inform the public about any measures they are taking to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change. This is significant because Monroe County’s sewer system is but one of many systems connected to the Great Lakes basin. If any number of communities around the largest fresh water system in the world are continually dumping raw sewage into our waters, this is going to matter to all of us. Top down planning, leaders around the Great Lakes talking to each other and preparing, is crucial.
Listen to this archived version of a local program on the likely effects of recent elections on Climate Change. Three local experts examine the possible repercussions of our efforts to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change after the recent dismal election turnout. Have we shot ourselves in the foot, as it were? Have we crippled our ability to adapt to Climate Change locally and possibly hampered our efforts to lead on Climate Change at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris because it’s now easier for our leaders to plead ignorance?
Connections: Recent Elections and Climate Change What do the election results mean for those who had hoped for more aggressive public policy relating to climate change? To say the least, advocates are disappointed. What's next? We discuss with our panel: Lawrence Torcello, RIT Ethics professor, Dr. Susan Spencer, solar scientist Abigail McHugh-Grifa of The Rochester People's Climate Coalition.
Already, we are seeing signs that the science of Climate Change is being ignored by our local leaders, who are responsible to plan for the consequences of Climate Change. For example, why hasn’t New York State upheld the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act? Are we swimming in raw sewage? (BTW: Monroe County is reporting diligently and you can find that information here: Sewage Discharge Reports. However, we here on the shores of Lake Ontario are downstream from all the other Great Lakes.)
WHAT'S IN THE WATER? STATE AGENCY'S FAILURE TO FOLLOW SEWAGE POLLUTION LAW PROVOKES QUESTIONS Each year the aging sewer infrastructure in New York’s cities, towns and villages dumps billions of gallons of raw sewage mixed with dirty stormwater into local waterways. These overflows close beaches, kill fish and wildlife, and sicken scores of people each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “No one swims in their toilet,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo. “We don’t want to swim in waterways that are contaminated.” In an attempt to provide immediate notification to New York residents about this public health threat, two years ago Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act into law. (October 30, 2014) City and State
Why are we even considering liquid gas (an explosive, greenhouse emitting fossil fuel) storage on the shores of Seneca Lake and setting the table for Fracking? For a great encapsulation of this dynamic folly check this out from Food and Water Watch’s. Wenonah Hauter:
Standing by Those Who Stand in the Way of Fracking Infrastructure It all began taking shape back in March of 2013, when Sandra Steingraber – the noted biologist, author, educator and advisor of Americans Against Fracking – and 11 other courageous individuals were arrested for blockading the entrance to a natural gas compressor station on the banks of Seneca Lake, in the environmentally sensitive Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. These so-called “Seneca Lake 12” were simply doing what countless other Americans have done over generations when they knew their health and safety were threatened, when their elected leaders weren’t there to help, and when they had no other choice: they stood up for their neighbors, their families and themselves, and were hauled off to jail. Sandra spent 10 days behind bars after defiantly refusing to pay a fine. (November 10, 2014) Food and Water Watch
Also, watch, listen, and read this amazing coverage (you have to go here because the local media isn’t covering this) of the human blockade of the gates of a methane gas storage facility near Seneca Lake, one of New York’s Finger Lakes, a water source, a tourist attraction, an ecosystem, and a whole lot of other resources, all put in jeopardy by another volatile fossil fuel: 10 Arrested as Human Blockade Continues Protesting Methane Gas Storage Facility. Consider signing a petition or donating to help this cause to reject Inergy Midstream‘s (now Crestwood) proposal to store Liquefied Petroleum Gas and expand natural gas storage at facilities on the shore of Seneca Lake in Reading, NY. More at Gas Free Seneca. Even folks in the Rochester area should care about the health of our Finger Lakes.
The real tragedy of the mid-term elections, and climate denial in general, is that the burden of proof is still put on the science and on the expensive, inconvenient things that have to be done to plan properly for Climate Change. Instead of us all being grownup and facing the challenge of our generation, we are hiding behind the skirts of denial, demanding that our leaders make this problem go away—instead of dealing with it forthrightly.