Sewage And Flooding On The Waterfront

September 20, 2013

Public attention spurs a planning initiative for Albany’s coast, but first take care of the long-neglected problems

The government of the City of Albany wants to “transform the waterfront,” make it “more user friendly” and “connect the waterfront to the surrounding neighborhoods.” All well and good, I’m all for it, it’s about time they got serious about the reason Albany exists. The 20th Century policy of ignoring the river is one of the root causes of the economic decline of our community.

But what good is prettying up the waterfront if the elaborate and expensive flood control system for the Hudson River no longer functions as originally intended? If every few years the proposed marina is wrecked by flooding and the new parking lots disappear under a foot of PCB-riddled mud, then why bother? And why did Albany County just pay $1.2 million taxpayer dollars and agree to pay a million dollars a year from now on to the managers of the flood control system if that system no longer functions and is effectively worthless to us?

And why are the City planners talking about locating restaurants almost on top of the spot where raw untreated sewage pours into the river? Isn’t that rather unhealthy, like what you would expect in the Third World, and wouldn’t tourists find the odor and floating mats of poop uninviting? I get the distinct impression that I’m annoying a lot of people by asking these questions.

Firedancer At The Weekly Tuesday Night Spinjam At The Albany Waterfront Amphitheater Firedancer At The Weekly Tuesday Night Spinjam At The Albany Waterfront Amphitheater

Back in February I wandered into the main library on Washington Avenue to join about a hundred people who had shown up for a public meeting sponsored by the City of Albany Planning Department. The planners, you see, had managed to procure some grants so they could hold these sessions and inform us taxpayers about their Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (immediately christened the LWRP) which will, we were told, transform the Hudson River shoreline into a user-friendly and accessible asset to the City of Albany. And of course the planners were asking for some constructive input from us folks, that’s pretty much a condition of the grants.

Given my longtime interest in the subject several people urged me to attend. This was actually the second meeting, I’d blown off the first because, well, for years the City has held all kinds of public planning meetings that are very nice and optimistic about the future and make everybody feel like part of the process but never result in any noticeable improvements. But I was told that things had changed, the Planning Department was serious and interest in the waterfront was at an all time high.

Getting public input is always dicey. For instance, when an attendee at this meeting suggested that access to the waterfront could be vastly improved by tearing down Interstate 787 and replacing it with a boulevard, the whole place erupted into applause. That’s not what the City officials wanted to hear. And of course Old Loudmouth here had a few annoying things to say during both parts of the meeting, about the waterfront plan and about the old problem of flooding.

The Old Problem Of Flooding: South Pearl Street, 1913 The Old Problem Of Flooding: South Pearl Street, 1913

The plan, which at the time was in its infancy, called for what looked to me like a grab bag of minor improvements, heavy on tourism and recreation with just a few nods toward sustainable economic development. Notably, there wasn’t much real talk about infrastructure. So I raised my hand and Planning Department director Doug Melnick clenched his teeth and called on me.

I told the group that it was all very nice to talk about marinas and parking lots (always with the parking) and the establishment of a “waterfront restaurant row” along the South End part of the waterfront. But before we even begin to talk about these things, I asked, shouldn’t we first take care of the raw sewage that pours out of the “Big C” pipe into the river? Wouldn’t the existence of that raw sewage, the odor and floating mats of human poop defeat any and all plans to make the waterfront user friendly?

Everyone looked at me stunned, like I had just announced that the mayor had rabies and was on his way to the library to bite us all. The Big C is the Combined Overflow, a big concrete pipe which is located under the U-Haul building parking lot and serves as the mouth of the buried Beaverkill River. As I’ve discovered and have mentioned often on this blog, the buried Beaverkill is the drain for Washington Park Lake and the raw sewage that pours out of it originates in the Park South neighborhood, quite possibly from Albany Medical Center.

The Big C Earlier This Summer The Big C Earlier This Summer

According to tests conducted by various governments and by environmental groups, the water just past the Big C shows an enormous and regionally unique spike in dissolved poop (fecal coliform) and is a tremendous breeding area for the bacteria that lives inside your large intestine (enterococcus.) It seems to me that if you encourage more human contact with this highly contaminated water then you are increasing the risk of some unthinkable Third World sewage disease like cholera or typhus infecting the unwary.

To the credit of the City planners, even though they were all cringing as I spoke, they openly acknowledged the existence of the problem. This meeting last February marked the first time that any government official has admitted anything to me about the Big C. For example, when I started railing about this problem some four years ago, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission (CDRPC,) the group that coordinates planning initiatives for our region, refused to admit that the buried pipe that carries the Beaverkill existed. It wasn’t even on their maps.

Washington Park Lake: The Beaverkill Before It Collects Sewage Washington Park Lake: The Beaverkill Before It Collects Sewage

I’m here to tell you that if a taxpayer like me or like you complains long enough about a serious public problem and the authorities are in no position to kill you, then sooner or later the authorities will take steps to deal with the problem just to shut you up. Sure enough, last month I learned by email from my outgoing Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro that:

It is my understanding that the EPA [Feds] and DEC [State] are requiring us [Albany] to put into the Combined Sewer Overflow Intermunicipal Proposal, that is already slated to cost $110 million, an additional $15 million specifically for the Big C. I also heard some of the other member municipal governments are balking at sharing this additional $15 million and that the City/County may have to eat the whole cost.