Burlington making strides at reducing combined sewer overflows

Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 5:44 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Those heavy rains earlier this week caused combined sewer overflows in Burlington that sent some untreated wastewater into Lake Champlain. That’s been a common problem over the years, but the city says recent upgrades actually kept the impact of this storm to a minimum.

More than a century ago, the sewer system in most cities -- including Burlington -- were built to carry both stormwater and sewage to be treated at wastewater plants before being released. But during intense storm events, some of that untreated, or partially treated water, is released to prevent the treatment plants from being overwhelmed.

“In order to not flood all the streets and make all the manholes pop and backup into people’s basements, we do have these relief points which allows this mixture of stormwater and sewage goes into the receiving waterbody,” explained Megan Moir with the City of Burlington’s Water Resources Division.

She says that under 100,000 gallons of wastewater was released from three points along the shoreline during the storm event Tuesday. The combined sewage overflows, or CSOs, were made up of approximately 90% stormwater and 10% sewage. “Any gallon of sewage, whether it’s combined sewer overflow or raw sewage in the lake, is a gallon too much, and we have been and continue to do extensive amounts of work to keep moving that needle more towards a place where this is a less and less frequent occurrence,” Moir said.

The city used to have a much bigger problem with releasing sewage into the lake, but a sewer separation project in part of the city in the 90s helped. More recently, the city has made other upgrades to reduce the number and severity of CSOs. “Yes, we have CSOs, but when you look at the magnitude of what they are compared to back then, significantly less,” Moir said.

Overall, the state of Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation says wastewater treatment plants only contribute 3% to the phosphorous pollution in Lake Champlain, with CSO’s responsible for a small percentage of that. “The major actors, when it comes to runoff in these kinds of events, are agricultural stormwater and stormwater from impervious surfaces -- roads and unpaved roads contribute a lot of phosphorous,” said Amy Polaczyk, program manager for DEC’s Wastewater Management Program.

It’s wasn’t lost on those out enjoying the views Thursday why it’s so important to keep pollution out of the lake. “It’s a shared resource. We are the ones making it dirty as far as the environmental impact. So, I believe it’s up to us to clean it up or keep it clean,” said Andriy Chukin of Williston.

“A lot of people have fun here and it’s important to keep the animals and people safe,” said Haley Fluhr, age 9.

And in terms of other efforts to prevent CSOs, Burlington is installing 14 rain gardens in the South End near the most problematic overflow point, along with other upcoming improvements.

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