Doing Right by the Environment

Buffalo is on a quest to collect and treat every drop of combined wastewater in its system

Doing Right by the Environment

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The Buffalo Sewer Authority has a real-time sewer overflow map on its website, but it’s doing much more than warning residents about sewer overflows. By 2034, it will have spent nearly a half-billion dollars in a quest to treat every drop of water that enters its combined sewer system — whether it originates as industrial wastewater, sewage or stormwater runoff.

“We put it forward-facing on our website so that if our customers are thinking about some recreation in a lake or river, they will know the likelihood of encountering untreated water,” says the utility’s general manager, Oluwole “OJ” McFoy. “After a rain event, it warns them, ‘Be mindful when you enter the water.’”

The authority’s problems aren’t unique, but the solutions it’s implementing stem from its own unique philosophy.

Combined history

The sewer authority dates from 1935 when New York Health Department officials mandated a cleanup of the Niagara River and other waters around the city. The authority was formed and a state-of-the-art sewer treatment plant was built with a combined sewer system collecting both sewage and stormwater.

By 2000 or so, Buffalo — which by then was past its heyday as an industrial city and population center — was dumping nearly 2 billion gallons of untreated water each year into rivers, streams and Lake Erie. That computes to more than 5 million gallons per day on average. The problem was the combined system. During rainstorms, it was sending so much flow to the city’s treatment plant that the facility couldn’t handle it. The federal EPA finally gave notice that the situation had to be corrected.

That was the situation when McFoy signed on with the authority in 2006. He had earned a civil engineering degree and worked in the transportation industry — highways, bridges, flyovers — and then became a consultant before deciding to join the sewer authority. He certainly didn’t blindly enter the situation: In addition to his professional credentials, McFoy is a Buffalo native.

“I was born and raised in the city of Buffalo and I wanted to do my best to help see the city through these environmental challenges. I recognized the challenge of maintaining the system and overcoming the sewer overflow problem and still keeping rates affordable,” he says. “That was my reason for coming over, to try to do better than what we were doing.”

The 47-year-old engineer says ultimately the work isn’t about sewer treatment and pipes. “This is about our people. We sometimes get stuck in the science or in the numbers, but this is about people in their public health space.”

McFoy joined the authority as chief operations officer. When retirements opened doors, he subsequently moved up to chief financial officer, chief engineer and finally, in 2015, became the authority’s general manager. It was a long journey from his start in transportation.

“When I made my way over to the water side, the most difficult transition wasn’t from pavement to pipes, it was understanding the treatment of water in our plant, the complexity of it,” McFoy says.

The plant, which is situated on an island in the Niagara River just offshore from the city proper, is in the first stage of a $55 million makeover. Ground-breaking on the project occurred in late October. The years-long project will begin with rehabilitation of the biological processing part of the facility and then a modernization of the mechanical part of the plant.  

In-pipe solution

The more novel part of the effort to reduce the amount of untreated water ending up in the river and other tributaries is the construction of containment facilities connected to the collections system. Sixteen holding tanks — each about 600 square feet — are being connected to the mainlines so that, during heavy rains, the excessive flow can be diverted to them and then incrementally released at a rate the treatment plant can handle.

What makes it work is computerized technology in the tanks — dubbed a “real-time decision support system” — that lets operators in the plant monitor water levels in the tank and control its systematic release. The smart metering system will help track flow generally and regulate it so that, McFoy explains, “though the volume of water at our treatment plant might be heavier than usual for a longer time, it will not have the sharp peaks of flow that can overwhelm the system. It will stretch it out.”

Moderate rainfalls — a half inch or inch — are not a problem for the system. They are routinely handled at the plant without untreated spillage. “We are great with those,” McFoy says. “We capture all that water. But very intense rains are tough. Three inches in an hour or something. That’s impossible for our present system.”

The first of the containment tanks was installed in 2010. A total of three are at work now, with three more ready to go. So far, an estimated 450 million gallons of water that would have been dumped into open waters without treatment have been diverted and treated, a volume that exceeds what engineers had predicted at this juncture of the upgrade.

The decision to add the tanks was somewhat philosophical. Looking back, McFoy says he understands why a previous generation of engineers built the combined system and then, in the 1970s, began to separate the storm and sewer systems. By 2007, though, when the sewer authority tackled the issue anew, the separate system solution didn’t look like an appropriate one.

“We could separate our system,” he says, “but that wouldn’t do right by our environment. Some of our suburban neighbors are having water quality problems because their storm sewers collect all that falls on roadways and carries it to our streams and rivers. Is that good for our environment?”

Buffalo’s response is to use the combined sewer system as a conduit for universal treatment. “The old is new again. We want to get all of our water to the treatment plant. Today, we have a 91% capture rate of every drop of water that flows here. By the end of the project, we will have 97% of it treated. In other communities, they are putting in end-of-pipe solutions for their storm sewers. When you can get everything piped to one place, as we are, you have an in-the-pipe solution. That’s the best way.”

The sewer authority in 2008 asked two water solution firms how to implement this philosophy of handling water. They each reached the conclusion that temporarily holding water in intelligent tanks during excessive flow periods was the answer. The bid of South Bend, Indiana, firm EmNet was a million dollars lower and won the contract to implement the system. EmNet merged three years ago with the international firm Xylem.

“We have been working with the South Bend company for 14 years now,” McFoy says. “Working with them has been a great, great opportunity to help our community.”

Absorbing I&I

The combined sewer smart system doesn’t entirely operate itself. The additional technology required additional professional development for employees in the water treatment plant as well as hiring some new technicians. In all, the authority employs 230 people.

Among them is a maintenance crew that handles most repair and replacement projects under 100 linear feet in size. The crew utilizes Camel and Vactor hydroexcavator and jetter trucks to expose and clean pipes. We’re talking big pipes, with interceptor lines ranging in size from 6 to 11 feet in diameter. To inspect what is going on inside those pipes, the authority depends on Envirosight inspection cameras.

Unlike many systems, Buffalo Sewer Authority doesn’t expend resources fighting inflow and  infiltration. In fact, it doesn’t even track inflow and infiltration, according to McFoy. That’s because groundwater leaking into the system is mostly a good thing in a system wanting to capture all water. In egregious cases of pipe failure, of course, a lining contract is let to repair it.

On the other hand, Buffalo does have a lake push challenge. That is, winds whipping across the eastern end of Lake Erie push water toward the city, forcing the west-flowing Buffalo River back into the sewer system.

“A strong southwest wind has the potential to really back up our river. Our weirs are at a set elevation and the water flows back over them and into our system,” McFoy says. “We know that because we have high volumes of water at our treatment plant when there’s high wind but no rain.”

On the right track

Physical and technological improvement of a sewer system generally means that a rate increase is in the offing. Rates haven’t been raised in Buffalo since 2005, so charging a little more for the system would seem warranted. In this case, however, that’s a tricky proposition.

“We have a 30% poverty rate in Buffalo still, so raising rates is a challenge,” McFoy says. “The question is, how can we keep our services affordable, be as efficient as we possibly can, and also keep our poor in mind? We need to operate our system in the cheapest, smartest and most efficient way in a community that has a lot of poor people.”

The authority offers an “affordability program” in which discounts up to 60% are available for residential connections that meet certain poverty standards. That was instituted in 2019 just before the COVID disruptions hit the economy. “We have put in a number of things to support our low-income folks while we are improving our system. If we don’t spend what we need to spend to improve the system, it will cost everyone more money.”

So, will rates go up to cover some of the half-billion dollars expended on improvements? “We are currently conducting a rate analysis that looks at all of our capacity and maintenance expenses and how we are going to operate going forward. We’re looking at all that right now.”

McFoy is satisfied that Buffalo Sewer Authority and the city are on the right track. Between the engineered smart sewer solution to the combined sewer overflow problem — which he believes more cities will emulate — he cites the 1,100 acres of green spaces the city has set aside. That acreage lets an estimated 1 billion gallons of water be absorbed into the ground instead of flowing into the sewer each year.

While there are lingering environmental challenges, McFoy is pleased with the authority’s progress. “I think Buffalo is seen as one of the leaders in innovative solutions on CSOs, and there’s local recognition that we are doing everything we are supposed to do for our water.”


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