County works toward integrated sewer system and plant upgrade

Chautauqua Institution co-founder Lewis Miller was ahead of his time, particularly when it came to sewage. Concerned about waterborne pathogens, Miller mandated that all homes in Chautauqua connect to a sewer system in 1893, making the Institution the first completely sewered community in the U.S.

Chautauqua and the other communities along Chautauqua Lake have since evolved and expanded. So have the needs of the lake. Chautauqua County is now endeavoring to eliminate old, independent septic systems that treat sewage from homes along the lake to reduce nutrient runoff as part of its Integrated Sewer Management Plan. These homes will then be connected to the three sewer plants on the lake currently in operation: the South and Center Chautauqua Lake Sewer Districts in Celoron, the Northern Chautauqua Lake Sewer District in Mayville, and the Chautauqua Utility District at the south end of the Institution.

Additionally, the county will upgrade these existing sewer plants in order to decrease the total maximum daily load of phosphorus that enters the lake after sewage treatment.

Phosphorus and nitrogen are naturally occurring nutrients in sewage that remain in treated wastewater if it is not chemically filtered. When the nutrient-rich wastewater discharges into the lake, it can lead to harmful algal blooms, excessive seaweed and other environmental and water quality concerns.

County Executive Vince Horrigan said the plan will reduce phosphorus and nitrogen input into the lake because the septic systems do not treat sewage as thoroughly as the sewer systems. He believes the plan is crucial because the lake brings the county significant business through tourism. The problems associated with high levels of nutrients — especially phosphorus — can make the lake unsafe for swimming and water recreation.

“The less phosphorus you have, the less algal blooms you have, and algal blooms are really the biggest problem we face in August when the temperature of the lake gets up,” Horrigan said. “We think this is a very important step to not only lower phosphorus to advance quality of water but also economic development.”

The plan was partly inspired by a mandate from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to lower the level of nutrients entering the lake by 2018. Horrigan estimated the “sewering the lake” aspect of the project will cost between $40 and $60 million, which would be paid for by the 2,000 people whose homes are currently on septic systems.

“It’s quite extensive, but we are pursuing funding for this project,” Horrigan said. “When you look at 2,000 customers divided by $40 million, that’s a big rate. So we have to get the cost down.”

He said the recently formed Chautauqua County Sewer Agency will manage the plan. Additionally, the county hired two engineering firms to complete the initial design and determine the exact costs.

As part of the upgrades to existing plants outlined by the plan, the CUD will add tertiary sewage treatment, said Tom Cherry, the supervisor of the plant. Tertiary sewage treatment filters out chemicals, fecal matter, inorganic material and nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. This will make the plant at the Institution the first along Chautauqua Lake to use a tertiary treatment process.

“We’re going into the 21st century,” Cherry said. “When the plant was first built, no one had any idea this place would turn into the community it’s turned into as far as the number of people that would come in.”

Cherry estimated the upgrades to the CUD, which all property owners at the Institution will pay for in taxes, will cost between $6 and $8 million.

John Jablonski III, the executive director of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, said in addition to the approved upgrades to the CUD, the Northern Chautauqua Lake and South and Center Chautauqua Lake districts will be upgraded to remove plant material and perform chemical treatment by 2018.

Jablonski worries that receiving funding for this project will be more of a challenge than it was in the past. He said the federal government funded 87.5 percent of the construction of the South and Center sewer districts in the 1970s.

“That made the costs reasonably low to the people in the districts,” he said. “Unfortunately, our country has changed its priorities. Despite that we have a lot of places that need sewering, Congress has chosen not to continue [water-quality] programs and the state has not provided the level of federal funding they did at that time.”

Jablonski believes the biggest impact the plan will have is on public health. He said some neighborhoods contain drinking water wells that are at risk for contamination from sewage from nearby septic systems.

“That’s a big plus, to have cleaner well water for people living along the lake,” he said.

Despite the fact the upgrades to existing plants and the integrated sewer system will not fix all the lake’s problems, Cherry believes the plan is worth every penny.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” he said. “It’s a requirement that we basically not soil our nest and leave this lake to our children and grandchildren in as good a condition as we can.”