This overflowing manhole in the Village of Mamaroneck is one of the many results of an overburdened sewer system plaguing Westchester County. File photo
By JACKSON CHEN
Westchester County is relying on its various municipalities to begin addressing the countywide issue of excessive water flow throughout its aging sewer system through an inter-municipal agreement.
Municipalities such as the City of Rye and the Village of Scarsdale are expected to consent to a joint agreement, while others like the Village of Mamaroneck and the City of New Rochelle have already agreed to address the sewer problems.
The decade-long problem of excessive water flow in the county’s sewer system has been commonly referred to as inflow and infiltration. More importantly, the overburdening amount of water that flows through the county’s sewers has been impacting the already-aging infrastructure.
While an aged infrastructure is part of the problem, many residents also unknowingly dump fresh water—by means of basement sump pumps or improper household drainage—into the municipalities’ sewer systems that are meant to handle waste water, which ultimately overstresses the pipes and reduces efficiency.
For many Westchester residents, the struggling sewer lines remain mostly out of sight and therefore without cause for alarm, unless the municipality digs up the road to inspect and repair the pipes. Otherwise, the impact of an overworked sewer system translates into cracked lines, polluted waters and the eventual costly repairs.
To address this ongoing problems, the county was issued a consent order by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in 2008. As part of the consent order, the county conducted a flow monitoring study in September 2012 that showed several municipalities had exceeded the maximum amount of gallons allowed into their sewer districts on at least half of the days during the two-year survey.
Adding to the pressure of a consent order, a nonprofit environmental organization, Save the Sound, filed suit on Aug. 11, 2015 with the United States Southern District Court of New York against the county for ongoing sewage leaks and frequent overflows. Additionally, the Connecticut and Mamaroneck-based organization filed a notice of intent to file suit against the individual municipalities in the county.
“We’ve been doing 50 sampling sites up and down the coast from New Rochelle up to Greenwich [Connecticut],” said Curt Johnson, executive director of Save the Sound. “We’ve been finding in Westchester County some really disturbingly high bacterial contamination, particularly up the streams and creeks.”
Johnson added that the county started addressing the sewer issues around 2000, but in three years’ time had performed no actions afterwards.
Now seven years removed from the 2008 consent order, the county is at the point where it needs its individual municipalities to come together with an inter-municipal agreement to combat the sewage system problems.
For the City of Rye, the agreement details what they must do to perform studies and analyses of its sewer lines to identify their condition and potential problems, according to Rye City Manager Marcus Serrano. The city manager estimated that the consultant fees may run in the hundreds of thousands, while the possibility of digging up streets to inspect or repair the lines would project to a much higher cost.
Serrano also said the city is required to address the issues they’ve discovered and eventually introduce a local law that would prohibit illegal home sewer hookups. Serrano said that the county believes that most of the extra water is coming from residents who have illegal sump pumps or pipe connections that pump clean water into the city’s sewer system.
“The more sensitive part that’s more disconcerting to all of us is that they want us to agree to inspect all the laterals, all the individual homeowners, to make sure there’s no illegal [connections],” Serrano said, citing private property concerns and the possibility of residents’ refusals.
Despite his concerns, Serrano said the city will most likely comply with the inter-municipal agreement because the county has been resistant to organizing a countywide solution.
According to Phil Oliva, spokesman for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican, the local sewer lines within the municipalities are not owned or operated by the county. Without a legal right to inspect or improve the individual sewers, the responsibility falls on the municipalities.
The sewer reform effort is already underway in the Village of Mamaroneck, and according to Village Manager Richard Slingerland, the village has already begun the rehabilitation of the sewers because of a consent order they received individually last fall from the DEC.
Slingerland added that the rest of the municipalities would have to catch up to the amount of legwork the village has already tackled.
“We’ve been checking into the problem through investigating with dye testing, camera video testing and inspection of people’s homes,” Slingerland said, adding the village also completed relining a previously failing sewer pipe.
“Since we’re already moving ahead on the consent order we had last fall, we’re probably a year ahead of the game,” Slignerland said. “We have the plan set up and we’re moving forward by taking action.”
The village manager said 40 connections between the village’s sewer main and homeowners’ private laterals have been remedied and should affect a big improvement. Overall, Slingerland said the sewer rehabilitation efforts have run the village several hundred thousands of dollars.
While Mamaroneck is well on its way to addressing its sewers, Serrano hopes that Rye will be able to partner with other municipalities under a joint effort of retaining consultants and engineers to promote a cost savings as the city prepares for the inter-municipal agreement.
While a potential lawsuit looms over Rye and other municipalities, Serrano hopes that the inter-municipal agreement would meet the standards of the DEC’s consent order as well as Save the Sound’s lawsuits.
If the seven remaining municipalities sign onto the agreement, the county will then oversee the progress of their studies and help to develop an approvable construction schedule by Aug. 31, 2017, according to Oliva. The county is projecting a completed construction date of Dec. 31, 2019.
For Save the Sound’s Johnson, he said the inter-municipal agreements are a step in the right direction, but much more is needed to be done to quash the issue.