'Perpetual problem' needs costly perpetual maintenance program

May 1, 2018

Erie County is doing some significant planning on its sewer system, aided by hard computer data showing where the system is doing well and where work is needed.

It's all very complicated, since the Environment and Planning Department runs sewer networks and treatment plants, but also connects municipal sewer systems to the Buffalo Sewer Authority and also connects some of its lines to the BSA. Deputy Commissioner Joseph Fiegl says a new priority is spending more money on replacement of pipes in its system, before they go bad.

"We've been looking at this as kind of a perpetual problem and perpetual program," Fiegel says. "So, what I mean by that is, a sewer's supposed to last roughly 100 years. So ideally what we would be doing is we would be replacing roughly about 1 percent of our system every single year. We are not at that level, but we are getting closer."

Fiegl says millions of dollars go into the budget each year to keep up the replacements. The sewer system is budgeting $8 million this year for capital spending, while planning for major upgrades in a key Southtowns system and in Lackawanna. The Southtowns work might eventually cost $80-$90 million, mostly for work on the treatment plant.

Fiegl says there are temporary computer networks set up for six months to measure flow and see how some section of the network is operating.

"Based on that flow data, we determine, 'Okay, what are the areas that we want to tactically and justifiably put our resources to? Where we want to do additional investigations and also where we want to put our capital work into eliminating that infiltration inflow,'" he says.

A study in Lackawanna was just finished, part of planning major rehabs in that piece of the network, a similar project was done recently in the Southtowns and another is in the works along the Lake Erie Shore.

Fiegel says the county also is systematically removing places where overloaded sewers flow into waterways.

"We did take over systems that did have these re-occurring overflows and we've been slowly but surely addressing them," he says. "We've eliminated all of the ones in the Village of Hamburg. Just at the end of 2017, we completed the Rush Creek Interceptor project. That eliminated another three of those overflows."

Fiegl says the department is also starting a program to make sure underground sewer pipes aren't taking in water underground because of leaks or bad joints or because the pipes are worn out.