Ongoing I&I Rehab Investments Are Paying Off for This New York Town

After years of investments into its sewers, a New York town sees the fruits of its labor.

Ongoing I&I Rehab Investments Are Paying Off for This New York Town

Workers in West Seneca, New York, apply cementitious liners to manholes as part of the rehabilitation process.

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"If only” is for wishful thinkers. As in, if only the sewer infrastructure weren’t so old. If only the water table were a little lower. If only Department of Environmental Conservation officials weren’t so conscientious.

Alas, such idle wishing is all for naught in places like West Seneca, New York, where each of the above factors came into play in 2004. That year, the state environmental patrol rode into town with a consent order — amended twice since — calling for the town to stem the flow of groundwater and stormwater into its sewer system. The extra water was overflowing manholes and producing other public safety headaches.

It still is, though at a reduced rate. As 2020 gets underway, West Seneca officials — including Steven Tanner, town engineer — are themselves conscientiously struggling to comply with the edict. After all these years, they finally can see an end to the environmental and regulatory crisis, the day when both trickling water and regulators ease up on them. The end is in sight, that is, but remains a full seven years away.

A leader in remediation

Tanner inherited the problem in 2011 when the town of West Seneca contracted with CPL — a multistate engineering consultancy with an office in nearby Buffalo — to head the town’s engineering department. For eight of the ensuing nine years, Tanner has worn the two hats of CPL consultant and West Seneca town engineer. During his tenure, the mandate to fix the system has evolved from just getting rid of the overflow to lining most of the system’s pipes and sharply reducing inflow and infiltration.

“The whole area has this problem,” Tanner says. Sewage from the suburban town flows north past the town of Cheektowaga and into a sewer treatment plant in Buffalo — both of those communities also are laboring under a consent order to correct similar infrastructure problems.

“West Seneca is the leader in correcting the situation,” Tanner says with some satisfaction. “State officials talk to the others about what we are doing to fix the system.” What the town is doing is methodically playing catch-up.

About half of the sewer lines running under the town are the responsibility of West Seneca; the other half belonging to the Erie County Sewer Districts. In both jurisdictions, the sewer network includes stretches of century-old pipe, mostly clay but with aging concrete sections here and there, as well as cast iron. “The problem is just old infrastructure built in the early 1900s, mostly vitrified clay pipe. We have root intrusion, and there hasn’t been a lot of rehab work done over time.”

Tanner thus tells a familiar story — the beauty of maple and hickory, hackberry and birch canopies above ground and the infiltration of root systems below. The resulting pipeline leakage and blockage created a half-dozen locations where water overflowed manholes after it rained. “It’s better than it used to be. We’ve got it down to two manholes that overflow when more than a quarter inch of rain falls and one that floods after three-quarters of an inch.”

Water pouring from a manhole after a quarter inch of rain! It's easy to see why even incremental progress is heralded and why the town has expended some $19 million through the first five phases of its systematic rehabilitation of pumps and pipes. Tanner says the worst is behind the town, with an estimated program expenditure going forward of $14 million. That will include penalties to be paid after completion was bumped to 2027, three years behind the original schedule.

Half the battle

Half the problem — literally, an estimated 50% of the system’s I&I — comes from outside the town’s immediate jurisdiction. Stormwater misdirected into the sewer system from pipes on private property is the cause of some of it, while leakage into cracked sewer laterals accounts for the rest.

In response, town officials passed an ordinance five years ago requiring that any pre-1970s homes placed on the market must have the property’s laterals inspected. Any system failing the inspection had to be repaired or replaced prior to the sale being finalized. While the ordinance could solve the problem, the solution could potentially cost a home seller $7,000 to $8,000. Homeowners were not happy, and the ordinance was rescinded.

So, as a fallback, the town’s engineering department is more frequently inspecting basements of homes — about 250 inspections a year. Workers are finding pipes sending stormwater into the sewer system and downspouts emptying into the system. Homeowners are required to reroute such pipes and eliminate the incursion.

“We’re doing a lot of that,” Tanner says. “But we’re not doing anything to replace leaking laterals. I don’t know if the town has the appetite to do more than they’ve tried on that. If we get calls about sinkholes and find that water is getting into a lateral, we tell a property owner they have to fix it, but we’re not looking for those kinds of things.”

There is no shortage of water to infiltrate the old pipes. West Seneca, after all, is situated on the east end of Lake Erie. The Buffalo River empties into the lake, and tributary creeks including Buffalo, Cazenovia and Cayuga pass through the town. Flooding periodically occurs at the confluence of the Buffalo and Cayuga creeks, which forms the river. In addition, acres of wetlands are maintained within the town limits.

All of this water flowing across a land area built of silt and sandy soil invites infiltration into failing pipes. The town’s seasonal water table is just 24 inches beneath the surface. “Groundwater can be an issue,” Tanner says, with incursions heaviest in spring and summer. Winter brings a separate water hazard: flooding from ice-blocked streams. “Because we are so close to Lake Erie, ice backs up on the flowing streams and makes ice dams that cause localized flooding.”

To mitigate such winter flooding, the town rolls out a hydraulic excavator to crack open ice below bridges where ice has formed against abutments, allowing water to burble up, overflow the ice and move downstream. In warmer months, silted areas of creeks sometimes are deepened so water can move more freely and ice can’t form as easily when temperatures drop. “You can’t do a whole lot about some things, and it probably is only going to get worse. Climate changes will affect it. 

Steady rehabilitation

In this water-rich environment, priority No. 1 is restoring the integrity of sewer lines. They range in size from 6 to 48 inches in diameter. Lining the pipes with a cured-in-place product is Tanner’s recommended fix. The first four phases of the ongoing project relied exclusively on the CIPP solution and were contracted to United Survey Inc., a Cleveland company. “They take their own quarter-inch felt and inject a two-part epoxy into it. They keep it cold in a refrigerated truck till it’s installed and heated up in the pipe,” Tanner says. 

In the just completed fifth phase, the condition of some of the pipe was such that Tanner could employ a slightly less expensive remedy: grout. National Water Main Cleaning, a Carylon company and Boston area contractor, did that work. Its staff sent cameras into the line to pinpoint locations where failing joints were letting in water and then sent an injectable grout machine into the pipe to robotically seal the failed joint.

Manholes are also being rehabbed. They are grouted and spray-sealed, and the area immediately around manhole covers are made more waterproof. In addition, inserts are added below each steel lid to prevent infiltrating water from reaching the sewer. Some 72 miles of sewer lines have been restored — slightly more than half of the total network — with the largest sewer mains still to be fixed. Tanner still is undecided on how to repair pipe larger than 24 inches.

“We’ve replaced some larger pipes. We haven’t lined any. I don’t yet have confidence in CIP doing the job on larger-dimensioned pipe,” he says. “We haven’t had to attack those yet. I’ll take some time to analyze it and recommend what I think will work best.”

For the smaller pipe, though, Tanner has no qualms about continuing to employ trenchless CIPP. He says the choice is a no-brainer. “It’s about cost — not only initial cost, but cost over time. With pipe bursting, who knows how long that pipe will last? We have pipe in which cured-in-place lining was installed 25 or 30 years ago and it’s still good. We know we have a sturdy product in CIP, and it’s less costly to install.”

Besides contracting out the yearslong rehab project, West Seneca also looks outside for emergency fixes. To that end, bids are periodically left for a standby contractor. However, ongoing maintenance is the responsibility of town crews, who have a Bobcat skid-steer and John Deere excavator at their disposal. For clearing lines and gutters, they can roll out the town’s 2014 Vactor 2000 that rides on a Kenworth chassis or a 2018 Kenworth rig with a Cyncon jetter.

Crews also video the system, both to check the condition of sewer infrastructure and to inspect waterlines. Tanner says the town saves a lot of money on the engineering side with its camera truck. “We’d spend $180,000 a year if we were contracting it out. Instead, town crews just work it into their work schedule.”

West Seneca’s sewer line saga has several years yet to run, but Tanner foresees a successful outcome “as long as the town can continue spending money on the problem.” The good news is that the governor’s office has begun to help with that. Grant money for struggling communities is being made available from a water-quality improvement revolving fund. The final stages of West Seneca’s project can tap that fund, beginning in the current phase.

Community residents generally are supportive of all this effort — with the exception of the laterals situation. Customers pay on average $140 a year to help fund the improvements, on top of their regular sewer bills, and complaints about the cost are relatively few, Tanner says. This partly is because the fruit of the investment and labor has begun to be seen. He notes that the Town Hall used to receive some 2,500 calls a year after sewer lines backed up into basements. “People were not happy.”

The relatively happy news in 2020 is that such calls have fallen drastically to about 250 a year. 


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