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Why a green infrastructure agenda makes the best econoimc sense for the region

There’s a new study just out about a transformative public works project for Greater Buffalo that could put hundreds of people to work at every skill level for the next several years. This project could marshal federal and state transportation funds, economic development funds, Dormitory Authority funds, Department of Health funds, Department of Education funds, and funds dedicated to vacant land management, energy conservation, and urban development. The project could get Buffalo ready for the next wave of America’s population growth. It could create new economic opportunity for current and future citizens.

Strangely, unlike UB 2020 or the Peace Bridge or the Inner Harbor, there’s not a single elected official in town who has jumped up to claim credit for, embrace or endorse this project.

That’s no surprise. The project in question would result in no destination that any politician could point to and say, “I did this.” The project would be a system, not a site. This project would be hard for any politically connected developer to make a publicly funded killing on. So until somebody starts campaigning for it, hundreds of millions of public dollars will pour into make-work projects that will do the moral equivalent of digging holes and filling them in, while this one stays in the design phase.

The project in question has a boring description: keeping the storm water out of our sewer system. The task is to divert the runoff from storm drains with a network of ditches, ponds, and rain barrels, and thereby stop raw sewage from fouling the Buffalo River, the Black Rock Canal, the Niagara River and Scajaquada Creek. The point of doing so? Simple: clean water. The economic effect of doing so? Not only simple but profound: to restore the comparative advantage that Buffalo once had as habitable destination for talent, investment, and quality.

The problem with the storm sewers is not that they channel rain into the rivers and creeks. Rain is not a pollutant. But because of the way that our current sewer systems were built, here’s what happens when it rains: Storm sewers flow into the “sanitary” sewer system that we all flush into, and this mixing sends untreated sewage from the “sanitary” sewers into the rivers and creeks. The reason the human excrement has to be manually removed from the Erie Canal Harbor and the restored Commercial Slip is because it flows directly into those bodies of water.

The report that Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and the Buffalo Sewer Authority collaborated in putting out this month makes for pretty compelling reading because its 56 pages define the problem so starkly, as wonky reports are wont to do. The difference is that this report lays out not only the solution but also the steps to start getting the job done.

Just so we understand this issue clearly, let’s describe it again: When it rains, water flows from roofs and parking lots and streets into the storm sewers. When the storm sewers flow heavily, as they do after most rainstorms and especially in spring, raw sewage from the “sanitary” sewer system gets mixed in. The storm sewers empty it all into the Buffalo River, Scajaquada Creek and the Black Rock Canal. It’s ugly, it’s dangerous, and it smells. The Niagara River is the third most popular fishery in America, but its fish are inedible due to low water quality. Hoyt Lake reeks because of this problem that the technicians call “combined sewer overflow” or CSO. When kids row and kayakers paddle the Buffalo River and the Black Rock Canal, they get sick from filthy water. The water is not drinkable, fishable, swimmable, or clear—and yet thousands of people fish, boat, and swim in it.

The Buffalo River and Cazenovia Creek together have 39 CSO “outfalls,” the nice-sounding word for big open pipes with grates over them to catch the biggest hunks of junk. Scajaquada Creek has six such spewing pipe-mouths. There are 14 on the Black Rock Canal. They are marked with green signs. They are numbered. Our various levels of government know where they are, but there has been insufficient attention to what happens at CSOs. New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has created fishing and paddling access sites immediately adjacent to CSOs. There’s a new rowing boathouse on the Buffalo River, opened just last year, right next to CSO #23-64. The New York Power Authority moved its ice boom to a new storage site, and paid for a new pocket park at the foot of Hamburg Street precisely at CSO #25. CSO #17 empties right into the Commercial Slip in Erie Canal Harbor. Every time rowers and scullers labor down the Black Rock Canal from the Erie Basin Marina all the way to the International Railroad Bridge that crosses the Niagara River and Squaw Island, they are working in water fed by 14 CSOs.

It’s not the sewage-treatment plant on Squaw Island that stinks. It’s the water you’re rowing through. And as you muscle your shell along, watch out for the kids swimming in it.

Infrastructure priorites

Buffalo has lived with its stinking water for a long time. Citizens may be outraged that major Buffalo River fish species have tumors on them—including more than 34 percent of the black bass and more than 80 percent of the brown bullheads—but the citizens who don’t fish and who would probably never eat locally caught fish anyway may be tempted to think that the problem of polluted wildlife here can be avoided by consuming store-bought fish. Clean water is nice, one imagines, but environmental cleanup is expensive. The specter of higher taxes hovers.

And one can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the Clearwater Coalition’s economic-impact modeling, which claims that a $500 million investment in “green” infrastructure to solve CSO problems would produce 20,480 jobs including jobs in all those plants that make conduit, backhoes, and tiles, and for all those engineers, draftsmen, landscapers, ditch-diggers, and Sewer Authority workers who would soak up all that public money. Doing the project the “green” way would mean changing the urban landscape. Land-banking might become the smartest tool for assembling sites for catchment ponds and basins. Rich, middling, and poor neighborhoods would have to get engaged in choosing and perhaps also in tending these places. It’s a transformative agenda that the greater Cleveland area is also considering, at a cost of over $2 billion. Fixing the 59 CSOs on Buffalo’s creeks and canal, plus a few more on the Niagara River, could be a $500 million proposition.

$500 million is indeed an expensive project, even if the impact could be 20,000 jobs. The proposed Peace Bridge expansion would be a $700 million undertaking. UB 2020 is a $5 billion package. Erie Canal Harbor’s one-shot, leverage-no-private-investment plan is to spend $153 million of public money on consultants, parking ramps, and replica canals. For a metro region that is losing population and continuing to sprawl, these are big numbers for infrastructure, numbers that are not going to be raised locally.

But if Albany and Washington are going to foot the bill for public works projects that will have fundamental, transformative, and enduring impact here, one cannot avoid the logic that clean water should be the priority investment—especially the way that the Riverkeeper-Buffalo Sewer Authority “green” approach lays it out. The “green” way of fixing the problem of filthy water will change the landscape of Buffalo—and not by digging it up and installing a new, separate storm sewer system. The “green” way is to divert water, to catch it in ponds and basins and ditches, to soak it up on rooftops that have been planted with vegetation, to punch holes in parking lots so that rainwater and melting snow percolate back into the groundwater rather than running downhill, as water does, carrying pollution into our streams.

Other cities are doing it

Other places have used this approach. Toronto has a large-scale diversion system. Rochester and the Syracuse area have partial systems. Our current CSO system sends four billion gallons of tainted water downstream to Niagara Falls and Lake Ontario every year, which is no damned good, obviously, but it also leaves the Buffalo Sewer Authority unable to use its huge capacity to treat suburban sewage—and to charge suburban customers for the service. As it stands today, the Buffalo sewage treatment system gets overwhelmed, then underutilized, because of CSO. And there is zero chance that the prospect of riverfront land, unless remediated and fronting on a clean river without CSOs, could ever be developable in the next Buffalo economy.

Riverkeeper and the Buffalo Sewer Authority collaborated on this review of alternatives. It’s most compelling finding is that there are many other partners that are willing to get engaged. The best source of “seed” money to get this project going is, as we’ve pointed out before, the settlement money from the reauthorization of the Niagara Power Project—money that is currently slated for the replica canals and parking ramps of Erie Canal Harbor.

Except for that Power Authority money, all the rest of the funds for big Buffalo projects will come from outside Buffalo. Pretty much all those funds will originate in and around the New York City metro area. It pains me to quote the execrable criminal Alan Hevesi, who once came to Buffalo to suggest that he was going to supply “adult supervision” to Erie County politicians, but this does seem like a case where the disconnect between local expertise and local decision-making is so bad that maybe they who pay should be they who say. If Buffalo is going to be sustainable, livable, attractive, and potentially investment-worthy, should its fundamental comparative advantage not be fixed first? With that potential for actual jobs—even if 20,000 jobs is an overstatement—this community should be asking Governor Cuomo, legislative leaders, Empire State Development, and Wall Street where they hope to get the best return on their investment. A bridge for fewer Canadians? A set of faux canals?

Or clean water, a greener city landscape, and a sewer system that serves the suburbs, too?

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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