Chaos and Control

There are no guarantees when your business revolves around the weather.
Chaos and Control

This month's issue of Municipal Sewer & Water focuses on stormwater management. As we were putting together this issue, news broke of serious flooding and subsequent destruction in Duluth, Minn. Photographs revealed a city that looked like it had just suffered a massive earthquake. Streets were ripped open, bedrock hillsides became waterfalls, cars fell into deep chasms, and debris was everywhere.

We profiled the Duluth stormwater utility in our October 2008 issue. At that time, the utility was making significant improvements to its system, but sadly, nothing could have prepared the city for the blow it was dealt in June. After a wet start to the month, a series of storms dumped up to 10 inches of rain on parts of the area in just 36 hours. Duluth received over 7 inches of rain in just 24 hours, setting an all-time record for the city. At one point, an escaped seal was swimming on Grand Avenue near the Lake Superior Zoo.

The cost of repairs to public property in the city alone was initially estimated at between $50 million and $80 million.

Duluth immediately went to work on a large volume of repair and reconstruction work that no long-range plan could have taken into account. But that's the way it goes for municipal utility managers. It would be a tough job even if all factors were controlled, but they're not. Sometimes you're forced to seek out new sources of water because precipitation doesn't measure up. Sometimes the skies open up and you get so much it destroys your infrastructure.

Onondaga County, N.Y., featured in this issue, has had it's own stormwater issues, but theirs is a much happier story. It is a story that casts light on the importance of well-planned infrastructure in making a community work for everyone.

The county is home to Onondaga Lake, once one of the most polluted lakes in the country. Years of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) damaged water quality to the point where the lake was designated a Superfund site in 1994. Consent judgments required the county to reduce the frequency of CSOs by upgrading its wastewater treatment system within 15 years.

To comply, the county planned four new wastewater treatment plants along Onondaga Creek in the City of Syracuse, where the majority of the CSOs were taking place. The city council objected but ultimately lost the battle, and the Midland Avenue sewage treatment plant project was completed in early 2008.

Plans for the second treatment plant were nearly final when Joanie Mahoney took office as county executive that same year. Mahoney had served on the city council and didn't believe new treatment plants were the best solution.

Mahoney's staff quickly assembled teams to explore green infrastructure alternatives. After a year of planning, and with the U.S. EPA's support, the county went back to the courts and gained approval for green infrastructure as a solution.

In the few years since, the county has incorporated permeable pavement, rooftop gardens, free rain barrels, an urban forestry program and a number of other innovative green features that have made a tremendous difference in its ability to control stormwater and protect local waterways. Altogether, these projects are keeping tens of millions of gallons of stormwater out of the county's sewer systems.

Today, thanks to a fresh perspective and openness to new technology and techniques, the county is one of the EPA's top 10 green communities.

There will always be circumstances you can't control, as the folks in Duluth are fully aware, but careful planning and a forward focus are the surest path to improved systems and a better future. The people of Onondaga County can attest to that.

I hope these stories can help you and your utilities along this path. Enjoy this month's issue.

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Luke Laggis, 800/257-7222;


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