July 22, 2012

A chance to help our lake

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — Last week was a good one for Plattsburgh. Another spectacular Mayor’s Cup weekend concluded and the Senate approved a farm bill that provides funding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program for small city sewer facility improvements. This may be just what the City of Plattsburgh needs to turn the corner.

Visions of a revitalized downtown core have come and gone. While downtown is getting nicer every year, the elephant in that room remains the sewage treatment plant just across the river from the McDonough Monument and within a stone’s throw of City Hall.

The sewage treatment plant was a terrific improvement in its day. Up to the 1970s, the city shoreline was used for railroad tracks and warehouses, storage yards and garbage dumps. Some of these sites have been abandoned, others are in disrepair. Yet, few places have been reclaimed so that residents and visitors alike can marvel over the shoreline of the city on the lake.

Given the other less flattering uses of the lake, it should have come as no surprise in the 1970s when a new sewage treatment plant was built in the heart of our downtown core. The federal program in the early days of an Environmental Protection Agency effort to clean up our lakes and streams was a boon for Plattsburgh. The city built a new plant and brought its sewer effluent discharge into Lake Champlain up to the standards then deemed adequate.

That was four decades ago. Now, we recognize that these former standards do not address other effluents that are polluting our lake. The sewage treatment plant met standards developed a couple of generations ago, but does not meet today’s standards. Because the plant is grandfathered into now obsolete standards, it is legally within discharge limits, except on the days when it is not.

The plant has also exceeded its design life. It is time for a new plant and an opportunity for a revitalized downtown core. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a city beach in the heart of the city, or a lake walk where a sewage treatment plant once stood?

And doesn’t the City and Town of Plattsburgh deserve a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant that is designed to meet current standards now enjoyed in other communities, and can contribute to cleaning up our lake? Perhaps this is something we can work on together, city and town, in the best interest of all residents now and in the future.

Modern plants can be designed to work symbiotically with wetlands. A primary settling pond can remove sludge and debris, as does our existing plant downtown. A wetlands can then be used to provide secondary treatment that can break down the organic waste in sewage, followed by tertiary treatment to remove some chemicals like phosphorous that destabilize our lake’s chemistry and disrupt its vegetation.

There are wetlands near Georgia Pacific or adjacent to Scomotion Creek that would be ideal for such a modern sewage treatment plant. The wetlands could be revitalized as the lake is rehabilitated. And, the downtown core can be transformed from an area where we keep people away from the lake to one where we celebrate the lake.

I would hardly advocate for our region to garner the wonderful benefits of a revitalized downtown lakeside just because someone else is picking up the lion’s share of the cost. I believe the economics of a $30 million investment in our downtown is sound on its own. The dramatically improved lakeshore will be more valuable to the city and to the residents with adjoining properties. The lake ecosystem is valuable to us all, and the elimination of our phosphorous and nitrogen discharges and our occasional effluent overflows will help prevent nasty noxious weed growth and the cyanobacteria blue-green algae blooms that have become increasingly problematic for our lake. Our humans, our fish, and even our fishing tournaments will appreciate the clearer water, and we won’t have to suffer the embarrassment and high economic costs associated with a beach that has to be closed on occasion for health reasons.

Our businesses will prosper as more people have more reasons to go downtown and enjoy the lake. Even the construction jobs to build an effluent plant will be a good shot in the arm for an industry that has suffered most in this Great Recession. I am very confident that a careful analysis of the benefits of a new plant will well exceed its cost.

This is the type of infrastructure project our region needs, and it is precisely the type of improvement our federal government should have been encouraging as part of its stimulus package. The status quo stinks, pun intended, and this is the perfect opportunity to do something about it. Let’s do a bit less of preserving what is not working and instead imagine what will work better and on many more levels, now and for generations to come. Plattsburgh deserves it.

Colin Read chairs the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at