An estimated 800 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater have flowed into the Niagara River from the American and Canadian sides so far this year, eight times more than last year.
It’s enough to pour over the Horseshoe Falls for 20 minutes.
The American side accounts for about three-quarters of the sewage and overflow, according to discharge data The Buffalo News reviewed. But most of the time, neither side’s wastewater system can handle an inch of daily rainfall without overflows into the river.
“This is a common problem for both sides – the pollution. We got it, too,” said Jim Silverthorn, a retired Hydro One employee whose regular walks take him near the Niagara Falls, Ont., outfalls.
Why so much this year? The rainy months of April and May accounted for almost 60 percent of this year’s overflows.
A dark, smelly release of effluent from a U.S. outfall at the base of the American falls thrust Niagara Falls into the international spotlight over the summer, with government officials, tourists and business people outraged about sewage spoiling Buffalo Niagara’s most recognizable natural wonder and Canada’s most popular tourist spot.
“Because it happened at Niagara Falls, I think, it’s finally receiving a lot of the attention it deserves,” said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster.
But data shows overflows occur on many days – and from both sides of the border.
Out of sight
When millions of gallons of wastewater are released into the Niagara River over a 100-foot weir at the base of the American falls and in the Niagara Gorge on the U.S. side, you can watch it flow out of a pair of concrete outfall canyons.
The Niagara Falls Water Board acknowledges it’s “probably at the worst possible location” – at the water surface and in a spot where an eddy carries water toward the Maid of the Mist boat docks and the American Falls. The outfall was selected when its sewage plant was built in the 1970s because it already existed.
On the Canadian side of the river, there are at least eight outfalls, but they are harder to see without scaling an 8-foot-high barbed wire fence.
Most of them empty into a man-made hydroelectric canal that flows to the Sir Adam Beck hydroelectric plant at a rate of about 158,500 gallons per second.
In most cases, those outfalls are at the base of a deep gorge.