Onondaga County wins U.S. Water Prize for green infrastructure program

Onondaga County wins U.S. Water Prize for green infrastructure program
Syracuse residents attend an instructional workshop, learning how to install and maintain the rain barrels provided through the Save the Rain program. (Photos courtesy of Onondaga County).

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When Onondaga County, N.Y., was charged with the task of reducing the frequency of combined sewer overflow events that released sanitary flow and stormwater into Onondaga Lake, county officials stepped up and created the Save the Rain program. And the hard work has paid off, with the stormwater abatement program receiving a U.S. Water Prize from the U.S. Water Alliance. 

“The Save the Rain program is our green infrastructure component of our stormwater initiative,” says Joanie Mahoney, county executive for Onondaga County. “We are under a consent order to stop raw sewage from making its way into the lake. In the past the solution has been to capture those overflows and treat them and then put the treated water into Onondaga Creek where it makes its way to the lake.” 

Onondaga is the first county with a consent order to use green infrastructure. “We took it very seriously being the first and we talked as a team about the fact that other communities were going to look to us as a role model,” Mahoney says. “We wanted to be successful so that the next community down the road would have an easier time of making the argument that it’s a better way to go.” 

The county initially planned to build additional wastewater treatment facilities in downtown Syracuse to treat the sanitary flows, however, when Mahoney took office in 2008, she wanted to find a better alternative. 

“A consent order required us to build sewage treatment plants,” Mahoney says. “But we convinced the federal court to amend the consent order to give us a more balanced requirement of gray and green infrastructure. 

“What we’re doing now is taking the stormwater out of the system in part by using green infrastructure so we don’t have the overflows in the first place. Then the balance that we don’t capture with green infrastructure, we’re storing until the rain event subsides and it can make its way to the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant for full treatment.” 

Green infrastructure projects include green roofs on commercial buildings and residential homes, rain gardens and wetlands. “There are a lot of different components of green infrastructure depending on what the project is,” Mahoney says. “It’s been something that has happened here and there for people across the country, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive municipal sewershed that’s used green infrastructure as a solution.” 

Design and consulting firm CH2M HILL helped Onondaga County with their green initiatives. “They are our consultant on everything green,” Mahoney says. “They have given us advice about which green infrastructure projects to implement and where to implement them. They have also overseen the implementation of those projects.” 

The consulting firm is also one of several corporate sponsors of the U.S. Water Prize. “We have had the privilege to partner with Onondaga County on their Save the Rain program and know firsthand the innovation and leadership the county has demonstrated in becoming a national model for implementing green infrastructure solutions. I congratulate Onondaga County and all the winners on receiving this prestigious award,” says Bob Bailey, CH2M HILL Water president, in a press release from the company. 

The Save the Rain team is appreciative for the recognition, and the public is taking a greater interest in greening their community, Mahoney says. “If you live in the area, you can qualify for a free rain barrel,” she says. “Anybody can have a free rain barrel who lives in the sewershed as long as they come to a 20-minute program that shows them how to use the rain barrel. There’s a lot of opportunity for the public.” 

Mahoney says the way the public has embraced Save the Rain is the most encouraging. “I think people are proud to be from a community that’s leading the way in green infrastructure and they ask how they can do their part,” she says. 

“We’re very proud to be recognized. It really is unbelievable the recognition Save the Rain is getting,” she continues. “I tell the Save the Rain team they’re changing the world. I think that makes them very proud. To get the outside recognition from the U.S. Water Alliance as further validation is very inspiring.” 

Check out a full story on Onondaga County's complete stormwater management efforts at www.mswmag.com/editorial/2012/09/a_better_way_forward.


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