From The Editor | June 4, 2014

Save The Rain: Preventing Combined Sewer Overflows

Laura Martin

By Laura Martin


For decades Onondaga Lake, located outside of Syracuse, NY, was plagued by extreme pollution.

The lake was declared unsafe for swimming in the '40s, and fishing was banned in the '70s. In 1989 the state of New York initiated a national resources damages claim against Onondaga County, alleging violations of state and federal water pollution control laws. A consent order settled the litigation, but an increasing number of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) made it difficult for the county to comply with the state’s terms. Heavy wet-weather events often overwhelmed the county’s wastewater system — which was too small for its growing population — and untreated sewage ended up in Onondaga Lake.

To save their lake, Onondaga County had to save the rain.

In 2009, Save the Rain — a green infrastructure initiative — was created by newly elected county executive Joanie Mahoney. The county has since invested nearly $150 million in the initiative, advancing more than 175 distinct green infrastructure projects which collect, slow down, and spread stormwater, preventing it from overflowing the sewer systems.

“As far as communities with green infrastructure projects go, we have one of the largest programs in the country,” said Matthew Millea, the deputy county executive for Onondaga County, who works with Mahoney. “But I think many communities will surpass us as more and more realize how important stormwater management is.”

Already, the Save the Rain program has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of CSOs, said Millea. The goal is to reduce CSOs by 95 percent by 2018.

Green infrastructure projects include the planting of community rain gardens and the installation of porous pavements and green rooftops (vegetation-covered roofs that absorb water) on both public and private properties. A program has also been designed to promote tree planting throughout the city of Syracuse. This initiative will support the planting of 8,500 trees by 2018.

Larger projects in the community include the Rosamond Gifford Zoo project and the West Onondaga Street Green Corridor project.  Prior to the Save the Rain initiative, the zoo’s parking lots generated a tremendous amount of runoff.  New installations — including bioretention areas, porous pavement within the parking lots, and multiple large subsurface infiltration beds — now allow the capture of approximately 4.2 million gallons of stormwater annually. On West Onondaga Street, several green infrastructure elements were installed to capture stormwater and enhance the urban landscape. The street now captures up to one inch of rainfall at a given time, which reduces stormwater runoff by approximately 5,586,000 gallons per year.

Also significant is the Beauchamp Library project, part of the larger Green Library Initiative in Onondaga County. A large bioretention area was installed adjacent to the Beauchamp Library building to capture runoff from the library roof, the main library parking lot, and from the street. The project captures approximately 265,000 gallons of stormwater annually.

Rain barrels are also utilized as a stormwater collection tool as part of the Save the Rain program.  Over 3,000 barrels have been given to community members. The barrels do more than just collect rain, explained Millea.

“You can get some stormwater volume reduction at the household level, but the biggest benefit of the rain barrels is that they get people engaged with the Save the Rain program and reducing stormwater runoff,” said Millea. “They learn how the stormwater is connected to the sewage system, and that even the rainwater off of their roof can result in environmental issues if they aren’t careful.”

The county hosts educational events to teach residents how to use their rain barrels. Those interested in the rain barrel or other Save the Rain programs can also get information via Twitter @SaveTheRainUS.

Right now the rain barrel program is focused primarily in the city of Syracuse, which has around 125,000 residents, but Millea hopes it will soon expand to all of Onondaga County, which has 450,000 residents.

Community involvement has been key to the success of the Save the Rain program. Many of the green installations in Onondaga County were paid for using the profits from residential water rate increases. Despite the higher water bill, most of the residents support the program.

“People are seeing the difference in the quality of the lake, which was heavily impaired, and we are educating our residents about the impact that CSOs have on that lake,” said Millea “It can be hard to educate the homeowner, but it is critical to do so for something like this to work.”

Despite its successes, the Save the Rain program is far from over. Many more green infrastructure projects are planned, and the team is working to pass an ordinance that will require new developments to meet stormwater runoff prevention standards.  The county held a green infrastructure summit last year, and plans to host it again in the future. The goal is to educate not only the residents and business in Onondaga County, but also other communities about the importance of stormwater management.

“I think we are at a very critical phase as communities decide how to deal with increasing wet weather issues. A lot of communities are starting to see the benefits of green infrastructure,” said Millea. “You are going to have to make an investment in water infrastructure anyway, so you might as well make it green.”

Image credit: "rain," mxgirl85. © 2011, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license: