Solving wastewater issues through green innovation in Syracuse

The Onondaga Lake: one of the most polluted waterways in the country. Image by Joegrimes

Across the country, older cities struggle with outdated water-sewer systems that collect sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff in a single pipe system. When a big storm occurs, the main system gets overloaded, resulting in a disgusting combination: sewage combines with stormwater and runs into nearby lakes and rivers, causing serious water pollution and health issues.

Combatting these problems traditionally required that cities make a big investment in either building a second piping system for the whole city, or large tanks that can store water during storms. These “gray infrastructure” solutions can take years to implement, cost millions, and substantially disrupt the lives of residents. Cities are beginning to turn instead to “green” water infrastructure as a viable alternative to addressing combined sewer overflow. Green infrastructure uses plants and porous pavement — among other tools — as natural ways to filter water, increase infiltration, and reduce stormwater runoff into pipes.

Onondaga County, New York where Syracuse is located, became one of the first regions in the country in November to announce it will use this technology on a large scale. A judge approved an agreement that will allow the county to hold, infiltrate, and clean polluted runoff through vegetated basins, roof gardens, tree boxes, and rain gardens. This new agreement replaces a 1999 consent order that mandated the construction of large-scale water treatment systems to reduce pollutant levels in Onondaga Lake — widely considered one of the most polluted waterways in the country due to sewage waste and industrial dumping.

Now, the same money that would have been spent to build three concentrated industrial structures and massive pipe storage systems will go toward this mixed approach that will help beautify the city, create green jobs, and save money on construction, operation, and maintenance. It will also help position the Syracuse area as one of the nation’s leaders in green solutions to wastewater and pollution reduction.

Cities across the country that struggle with similar outdated systems will certainly be watching Syracuse carefully.