Watershed Guardians

A rigorous water source protection program allows Syracuse to avoid filtration and save millions of dollars annually.
Watershed Guardians
Mike Lynn

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The City of Syracuse, N.Y., enjoys the benefits of avoiding drinking water filtration, thanks to great source water quality from Skaneateles Lake and a unique and comprehensive watershed protection program. The city saves millions in operating costs annually because it is not required to filter its water.

Through 450 miles of distribution piping, Syracuse delivers an average of 38 mgd to its 145,000 citizens. If the lake elevation falls below Skaneateles Lake Drawdown Guideline Levels, as outlined in the U.S. EPA filtration avoidance criteria, the city has access to Lake Ontario through an agreement with the Metropolitan Water Board.

For safety, the city stores five days of water in three reservoirs totaling 208 million gallons. Since most of the city lies 400 feet below the Skaneateles lake level, distribution is mainly by gravity. Skaneateles Lake is one of few surface water sources in the nation approved as an unfiltered water supply for a medium-sized city. At the treatment plant in the Town of Skaneateles, chlorine is used for disinfection and hydrofluorosilicic acid to maintain fluoride levels.

Additional treatment includes rechlorination at city reservoirs to ensure a chlorine residual throughout the distribution system. Copper sulfate is applied to a reservoir when necessary to control algae growth, and orthophosphate is added to minimize lead.

"We are very lucky to have a great source of water," says Mike Lynn, water plant manager. "The residents know what they've got, too. We don't need to do a lot to it because people work together to prevent pollution from getting into the water. Without keeping the water source clean, we would have the barrier of a filtration plant."

Filtration avoidance

In June 2004, Syracuse received a filtration waiver from the EPA that remains in effect indefinitely, so long as the city maintains its water quality within strict limits. To comply with filtration avoidance mandates, the city rigorously monitors and tests the water. Water plant operators collect samples for coliform bacteria five times weekly in 50 locations in the distribution system — a total of 3,198 samples per year.

Online systems at the plant continuously monitor incoming water for turbidity and residual chlorine. Alarms are set to alert operators 24 hours a day to any potential turbidity or residual chlorine concerns.

Required quarterly sampling is performed for volatile organic compounds, pesticides and disinfection byproducts. Giardia and Cryptosporidium are monitored monthly. All water samples are tested at New York State certified laboratories. Under an EPA mandate, construction is underway on UV disinfection facilities at two reservoirs to neutralize Cryptosporidium. The facilities will be online by 2014 and will cost nearly $20 million to build.

Without a filtration avoidance waiver, Syracuse would have to build and operate a filtration plant. A 1996 filtration study prepared for the city estimated the construction cost at $60 million. The annual operation and maintenance cost was estimated at $4 million, versus the water plant's current operating budget of $1 million.

Protecting the watershed

Watershed protection is not new for Syracuse. The city established its drinking water distribution system in 1894, and watershed rules and regulations followed in 1909. At the time, such aggressive measures to protect water were uncommon. Even with very few residents on the lakefront and little development under way, city engineers had the foresight to look at potential future threats to water quality.

"The original Syracuse watershed rules and regulations were ahead of their time, and some still hold today," says Rich Abbott, public health sanitarian. "They were visionary about what needed to be done to protect the watershed, such as separation distances between outhouses and the lake." Today, the comprehensive rules provide strict requirements for septic tanks, erosion prevention, and control of sediment runoff from construction sites. The 59-square-mile watershed is largely farm and forest land but has some residential and commercial properties.

Tenacious inspection

Inspectors are the key to ensuring that watershed rules are followed. The city employs two inspectors who visit 3,000 properties annually. "There are more than 1,000 lakefront residents, so it's imperative to have an intense watershed protection program," Abbott says. "Our inspectors are in the field daily to monitor drainage areas, residential properties, farmland and commercial areas to find point sources of pollution." The main areas of focus are septic system failures and negative impacts from construction.

New York State Public Health Law grants watershed inspectors special authority to enter private property. That enables them to get an accurate picture of the watershed. "If we were limited to public access areas, we wouldn't be able to see many violations," Abbott says. "We can walk down watercourses and look for dump sites or areas where there are potential pollution sources. Due to the significant number of lakefront homes, failing septic systems are one of the biggest threats of contamination in the watershed, so inspectors monitor them very closely."

One of the most effective watershed rules allows inspectors to review all building applications. Anytime a property owner applies for a building permit for a project that disturbs more than 5,000 square feet of land, an erosion and sediment control plan is required.

Lots of data

The water department maintains a comprehensive database of every property in the watershed. Individual records include data such as septic system designs, soil classifications, building permit applications, and violation notices.

Property owners who understand the role of watershed protection become better stewards of the land. The city partners with outside agencies to conduct workshops and create written materials to teach the public about water-quality topics such as septic system maintenance and lakefront stabilization. Educating contractors and homeowners is part of the team's responsibilities.

"Sometimes it's a hard pill to swallow when someone is faced with a large bill for replacing a septic system," Lynn says. "We are regulators, but if we educate as we're regulating, it makes the experience with homeowners and contractors a little easier and makes that working relationship better. A lot of times we need to tell people what they don't want to hear, so that's one of the biggest challenges of the job."



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