Officials are increasingly focusing on sewer infrastructure as crucial to economic growth
By Ken Sturtz
In Oswego County conversations about growing the local economy and creating good-paying jobs are commonplace.
Besides a skilled workforce, eager politicians and economic development officials tout convenient access to major highways and rail systems, as well as a deep-water port and fully-equipped airport.
But sewer infrastructure, which is largely missing or inadequate outside the county’s two cities, remains a significant hindrance to development.
A 2017 infrastructure analysis report commissioned by the county identified sewer system limitations as “the greatest barrier to future economic growth, creation of jobs, and expansion of the tax base in Oswego County.”
Sewer service is mostly constrained to a handful of population centers along Route 481 and Interstate 81.
Besides the cities of Oswego and Fulton, relatively small sewer systems currently operate in Minetto, Phoenix, Mexico, Parish, Central Square, Pulaski and Cleveland.
Residents and businesses outside those communities typically use private septic systems.
As vital as sewer infrastructure may be to economic development, as well as pollution control, it tends not to get the same kind of attention as other infrastructure.
For one thing, building and maintaining sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants can be exceedingly expensive. There’s also another consideration, according to Mark Klotz, director of the Division of Water for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The public just doesn’t think that much about sewers.
“Once it goes down the drain or the toilet it’s out of their minds,” Klotz said. “There’s a lot that goes on down at that other end and it’s a huge cost. It’s a huge expense and it’s a major part of the overall assets of the municipality.”
Most communities in the state were established long before serious thought was given to waste treatment. People built their homes and added pipes for the wastewater and general drainage. Waste usually drained into the nearest body of water. That resulted in many heavily polluted waterways throughout the state, Klotz said.
In the 1970s, the federal government and the state began cracking down on water pollution. A key part of that effort was constructing wastewater treatment plants. Major federal grants allowed municipalities to build sewer systems and treatment plants at a fraction of the actual cost. Water quality improved, but in the 1990s the grants transitioned to a low-interest loan program. That left municipalities largely on their own when their sewer infrastructure reached the end of its useful life after 25 to 35 years.
“That infrastructure is so old and a lot of times it doesn’t get looked at and repaired or replaced until it breaks or you see a real problem with it,” Klotz said.
That’s also the reason municipalities often struggle to raise the revenue needed to properly manage and maintain their water and sewer infrastructure through rate increases.
“The public doesn’t like to see their rates go up,” Klotz said. “When municipalities choose to raise rates, there is usually an uproar from the public.”
While the state has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars for critical water infrastructure improvements in recent years, many problems could be avoided if municipalities did a better job managing their infrastructure, Klotz said. Less than 40 percent of municipalities statewide have capital improvement plans for their sewer infrastructure.
To that end, the DEC created a long-term pilot program in 2015 to assist 10 municipalities with asset management. The goal was to teach municipalities how to properly manage infrastructure assets, such as water and sewer systems, so they don’t end up facing seemingly insurmountable expenses in the future. If done correctly, the municipalities can also realize long-term savings, Klotz added.
The city of Oswego offers a cautionary tale. Persistent problems with unpermitted sewer overflows led the city to enter into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency and the DEC in 2010. It took the city a decade and tens of millions of dollars to resolve the issues with its aging system.
President Joe Biden campaigned on a wide range of infrastructure issues, including fixing sewer systems and upgrading treatment plants. It’s not clear, however, if Congress will pass Biden’s colossal infrastructure package given the federal government’s aggressive spending on fighting the COVID-19 virus and propping up the flagging economy.
Without additional support from the federal government, the state and municipalities appear destined to struggle to cover the soaring costs, making asset management all the more important. A conservative estimate in 2008 by the DEC put the cost of repairing, replacing and updating New York State’s municipal wastewater infrastructure at more than $36 billion over 20 years.
Certain infrastructure required to attract development
Unfortunately, most companies considering doing business in Oswego County won’t take an IOU on sewer infrastructure.
In the past, it was common for officials to make a pitch to prospective companies. At the turn of the century, for example, Fulton’s leading citizens determined to entice the Swiss company Nestle to open its first factory in America here. So, they raised the money to buy a piece of land south of town for the factory. That, and the abundance of cows nearby, sealed the deal.
That’s not the case anymore, said David Turner, director of the county’s Department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning. Now, prospective companies often use third-party “straw men” to conceal their identity when shopping for a site. They typically send a request for information with a long checklist of requirements.
“If you don’t have any one of those critical pieces, forget it,” Turner said. “You never even make it to the next step. You don’t even get the chance to discuss what you could do.”
Even sites tailor-made for development have seen their prospects stunted. For example, Operation Oswego County controls roughly 160 acres of land adjacent to the Oswego County Airport in Volney. It acquired the land years ago in anticipation of a proposed bypass that would’ve located Route 481 near the airport, Executive Director L. Michael Treadwell said. The bypass never materialized and Operation Oswego County has struggled to develop the property as an industrial park.
The airport itself would seem to be ripe for development. Close proximity to air transport could be desirable for many companies and Oswego County has invested in upgrades over the years.
Today, more than 80 small aircraft are based there and the airport’s two asphalt runways support more than 20,000 takeoffs and landings annually. National Grid, Exelon and a tool and machine business have facilities located there. But, most of the land remains vacant.
“We have been significantly limited in terms of attracting other businesses out there,” Treadwell said. “Primarily it’s because of lack of infrastructure.”
For years there were no sewers or public water at the site. The county created a capital project to expand intermunicipal wastewater service to Volney a decade ago, but the funding didn’t materialize. However, a few years ago, water service was extended to the area.
In June, officials broke ground on construction extending sewer service into Volney, to include the airport and industrial park. It took the collaboration of the town, the city of Fulton, Oswego County and the Industrial Development Agency to make it a reality. The project is wrapping up.
Treadwell said having municipal water and sewer service at the airport and industrial park will increase the odds of attracting development to the area.
“It’s not that it makes it easier, it makes it possible,” Treadwell said. “Without wastewater treatment in many cases you have no opportunity to finalize any type of deal even if logistically the location would be good.”
Limited sewer capacity prevents expansion
Areas lacking sewer service aren’t the only development black holes. The county’s infrastructure analysis report found that even in communities with established municipal services, existing infrastructure can prove inadequate to support development.
“Sewer systems that are operating at or close to capacity limit the number of additional connections that can be made to the system,” the report said. “Wastewater treatment is also constrained by the service life of the systems, many of which were installed in the 1970s.”
Older systems often have leaking and infiltration issues. Treatment plants in Parish, Phoenix and Mexico are currently experiencing such issues.
The Oswego County Industrial Park in Schroeppel in many ways represents an ideal site for development. More than 100 acres of land sits adjacent to Route 481 and not far from Onondaga County and other major highways. The site has rail access as well as power and water. The park has attracted companies, but much of the space remains undeveloped. The site also has sewer service; an eight-inch line connects to the village of Phoenix’s treatment plant a mile away.
Economic development officials scored a significant victory several years ago when EJ USA decided to construct a 70,000-square-foot steel and aluminum fabrication plant and distribution center on a 15-acre site at the industrial park. The company—which makes infrastructure access solutions such as manhole frames, grates, covers and hatches—was operating out of an antiquated facility in Cicero and needed to expand.
The $9 million plant employs nearly 100 people. Officials would like to continue to grow the park, but Phoenix’s treatment plant is relatively small and doesn’t have the excess capacity to handle wastewater from large industrial operations. Treadwell said the sewer system was able to handle the addition of EJ USA’s facility because the company’s fabrication plant doesn’t have significant wastewater treatment needs.
Modernizing older sewer systems and treatment plants doesn’t necessarily mean sewer service can be extended to new areas.
The village of Mexico completed a municipal water system in 1913, but most of the village’s waste ran downhill and ended up in a creek running through the center of town, said Public Works Superintendent John Power. The village finally completed a waste treatment plant in 1978, but the sewer system and treatment plant went decades without significant upgrades.
A decade ago the village began planning a multi-phase renovation of the aging system. The result of all the renovations, which would not have been possible without millions of dollars in state funding, is a state-of-the-art waste treatment plant.
Workers upgraded waste drying beds, renovated the main lift station and pumping stations and rehabbed the processing tanks. Chemical treatment was replaced with an ultraviolent (UV) light system for disinfection. The final phase of the project will involve adding a screw press to more efficiently dry solid waste before it is trucked away to the landfill.
The treatment plant doesn’t use any pumps; everything is gravity-fed. Most of the plant’s original infrastructure is still in use, but one noticeable exception is the tiny brick building where chlorine was previously used as a disinfectant. The village used to spend $12,000 a year on chemicals, Powers said. The equipment is kept functional as a backup. But now effluent flows to a building below ground where it passes through a UV light disinfection system before being released into the Little Salmon River.
The whole system is highly automated, which allows the village to run its water and sewer systems with just two full-time employees, Powers said. Even with automation, the treatment plant must be partially staffed every day of the year.
“It’s the most expensive line item on the village budget, operating the sewer system,” Powers added. “It’s an expensive proposition, but it’s an important one.”
Despite Mexico’s state-of-the-art upgrades to its treatment plant, the sewer system still doesn’t have the capacity for the kind of expansion that might help lower the tax burden.
That’s because the treatment plant has a permitted capacity of 300,000 gallons of wastewater a day. The plant handles well over 200,000 gallons on an average day, but the village’s sewer system has significant issues with leaking and infiltration. In especially wet weather, the system can be overwhelmed with more than 800,000 gallons a day, far more than its permitted capacity.
The village is working to resolve issues with leaking and infiltration, Powers said. That process, however, is both tedious and expensive. In the short-term it’s unlikely the system could handle the waste from a large development project.
Sewer solutions slowly coming together
Although there is no silver bullet for the county’s sewer infrastructure limitations, there’s still reason for optimism going forward.
Officials have known for years that infrastructure is a crucial issue, but the report commissioned by the county pinpointed sewer infrastructure as a major obstacle that needs to be addressed to make the county competitive for economic development projects, Treadwell said.
Treadwell—who has headed Operation Oswego County for nearly four decades—said he’s seen more water and sewer development in the county in the last five years than the previous 25 years. The Hastings area has seen enough growth that the capacity of the treatment plant there is being expanded. Officials in Pulaski are looking at options to expand their sewer system, too. Of course, the cost of larger sewer infrastructure projects can quickly soar and often end up being economically unfeasible.
“You have to do it little by little,” Treadwell explained. “There’s no billion-dollar checks sitting out there waiting to pay for all these things. You have to demonstrate and document that there is benefits that will be associated with those types of infrastructure developments that warrant the investment.”
Government and economic development officials have cherry-picked projects that could realistically be implemented and funded, such as extending sewers to the county airport and adjacent business park. Treadwell said they’re also studying options to expand the capacity of the wastewater treatment plant in Phoenix, which would support future growth in the village and at the industrial park in Schroeppel.
Another expansion project is beginning to take shape in the town of Scriba. In the fall officials announced they’d secured a $15 million loan through the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program.
The plan calls for a new treatment plant to be built near Lake Ontario. The plant would be capable of handling 500,000 gallons of wastewater a day. Existing sewer lines would be extended down county Route 1 and County Route 1A to the Nine Mile Point and James A. FitzPatrick nuclear power plants. Close to 1,000 residents would also gain sewer service.
The project would address two issues, said Scriba Supervisor Jim Oldenburg. First, it would resolve a significant number of failing septic systems in that part of the town. Second, it would save the power plants from upgrading their systems. Each plant has an existing wastewater treatment facility, but they are aging and in need of updating. Instead they would redirect their systems to the town’s new treatment plant.
The project is still in the planning phase and likely years from completion.
Sewer service has been added piecemeal in recent years, especially along waterways where heavy flooding has damaged private septic systems. Record flooding along Lake Ontario caused millions of dollars in damage. The towns of Oswego and Sandy Creek received funding through the state’s Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative to help expand sewer service to properties along the lake.
The town of Oswego is in the first phase of a $4.8 million plan that would extend sewer service from the city of Oswego along Fred Haynes Boulevard and County Route 89.
Supervisor Richard Kaulfuss said the project will be beneficial for both homeowners and businesses. Residents along the lake have experienced problems with their septic systems failing due to increased flooding. Several businesses including Rudy’s Lakeside Drive-In, an ice cream stand and a campground along the lake would also benefit from sewer service.
Kaulfuss said tapping into the city’s sewer capacity to extend sewers farther into the town is a positive first step that benefits both municipalities. He would, however, like to see sewers someday extend along the entire state Route 104 corridor.
“You’re not going to get commercial development if there’s no sewer, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “In order for the county to continue to grow, in order for this area to grow, we need infrastructure.”
Schroeppel also received state funding to assist with a $600,000 project to extend a sewer line to 47 properties on Ainslee Drive. The project tapped into the sewer system in Hastings.
Schroeppel Supervisor Lynett Greco said a majority of the town has municipal water, but only about a third of residents have access to sewers. The project, which wrapped up in late 2020, was a priority because Ainslee Drive is on the Oneida River. The water table there is quite high, causing many of the septic systems in the area to fail and drain into the river, Greco said.
Despite the inroads made in the last few years, sewer infrastructure limitations will likely remain a hindrance to economic development for the foreseeable future. Building sewers and waste treatment plants can be exceedingly expensive, time-consuming and face public pushback. Existing infrastructure is too often outdated or at capacity.
If recent sewer projects haven’t solved all the area’s infrastructure problems, that’s hardly the point. The fact that those issues are a part of the conversation and long-term planning is what matters, Treadwell said.
“The good aspect of it is those things are being addressed,” he said. “Five, six, eight years ago nobody was paying a whole lot of attention to any of these things even though they were there then. But, now they’re being focused upon.”