Victory!! Onondaga County Scraps Sewage Plants in Favor of Green Infrastructure
by Lindsay Speer

Change is in the air, and it smells sweet. Onondaga County Executive Joanne Mahoney announced on May 2, 2008 that the County will not award construction bids for the proposed Clinton Regional Treatment Facility (RTF) in Armory Square. Instead, it will explore more environmentally and economically sound options with the State of New York, Atlantic States Legal Foundation, City of Syracuse, and, for the first time, the Onondaga Nation and other community stakeholders.
Rain barrels are a simple solution activists recommend for protecting Onondaga Creek and other waterways. Photo: flickr.com/photos/eco-friendly_goodies/510160501/

Persistence Pays Off
Syracuse has an antiquated combined sewer system, in which stormwater runoff is directed into the sanitary sewers. A heavy rainfall results in Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), dumping sewage directly into Onondaga Creek. Onondaga County's previous solution was to treat the sewage with chlorine before dumping it into the creek, solving the bacteria problem but creating a host of other environmental and environmental justice concerns.

The County's first large RTF (Midland) was built in a predominantly African-American neighborhood on the Southside, displacing families and burdening the neighborhood with the stigma of a sewage plant. The Partnership for Onondaga Creek was born from that nightmare, bringing together Southside residents, the Onondaga Nation, and others interested in environmental justice and the health of Onondaga Creek to advocate for better alternatives to County plans.

The persistent work of the Partnership for Onondaga Creek has kept concerns about the sewage plants in the news and in politicians' minds for the ten years since the plans were first unveiled. The ongoing struggle inspired the Onondaga Environmental Institute to study bacteria concentrations in Onondaga Creek in 2007. They discovered that high levels of bacteria existed year-round, not just after storms, calling into serious question the effectiveness of the RTFs' end-of-pipe solution.

Going Green
In January 2008, the federal Environmental Protection Agency released a report urging municipalities to use green infrastructure, such as rain barrels, green roofs, and other methods to keep stormwater out of the sewer system. These developments combined with new County and State leadership this year to create a perfect storm for revisiting the mandates of the Amended Consent Judgement (ACJ), which dictates the cleanup of sewer pollution in Onondaga Creek and Harbor Brook.

On June 18th, the Partnership for Onondaga Creek gave a presentation to Onondaga County and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to outline alternatives to the remaining phase of the Midland plant: a $57 Million, 12 foot diameter, 1.5 mile long pipeline currently slated to be installed beside Onondaga Creek to pick up the few remaining untreated CSOs and direct the sewage to the Midland RTF.
Help Protect Local Waterways
Ensure that your gutter downspouts do not connect directly to the sewers
Direct downspouts to permeable surfaces such as lawns, rain gardens OR
Install rain barrels to capture rain water (excellent for watering your lawn or garden when it's dry!)
Watch your property for other water runoff during storms and reduce where possible
Consider permeable pavement when repaving driveways or redoing sidewalks
Plant trees

The rainwater runoff that overwhelms the sewers comes primarily from impermeable surfaces in a watershed - rooftops, parking lots, and streets. In addition to targeted sewer separation and storage, the Partnership proposed a mix of approaches to capture water using residential rainbarrels and green roof installation on commercial properties. The installation of vegetated curb extensions and tree box filters along roadsides, which serve to infiltrate water into the ground at the same time as beautifying neighborhoods, complete the plan. The cost of these alternatives is about half that of the proposed pipeline. The presentation was well-received and the Partnership awaits a final decision about whether the County and State will include the Midland sewersheds in their green infrastructure initiatives.

Cities have paved over almost every inch of nature for far too long, disrupting water cycles by keeping the water from the ground. Reconnecting rainwater with vegetation and the groundwater, and otherwise mimicking Mother Nature where possible, simply makes sense. While these low-tech solutions will save local taxpayers money, the benefits to all who live in the area go much farther than the wallet - improving air quality, decreasing the urban heat island effect in the summertime and generally bringing nature back into the lives of urban residents. This decision to use green infrastructure is a win for Onondaga Creek and everyone in the area, and much can be done by local residents themselves. To learn more or get involved, visit the Partnership for Onondaga Creek's website, www.onondagacreek.org.


Lindsay is an environmental consultant and community organizer on behalf of the Onondaga Nation. A lifelong Syracuse resident, she has worked for several years on the protection and restoration of Onondaga Creek.