The New York Department of Conservation (NYDEC) reports that one-quarter of the state’s 610 wastewater treatment plants are operating beyond their useful life expectancy. Many others are using outmoded and inadequate technology. The majority has stuck to a primary treatment approach – basically a flow-through settling tank — designed in the 1970s when plants were constructed in response to the federal Clean Water Act.

It’s not surprising then when New York wastewater treatment plants fail to meet their obligation of protecting waterways. Too often raw sewage dumps into rivers, streams, and lakes. Every year, according to the NYDEC old sewers flooded by storm water release more than 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the New York Harbor alone. According to the Alliance for the Great Lakes, more than 24 billion gallons of combined untreated sewage and storm water is dumped into the Great Lakes each year.

Many in New York recognize that clean water represents the state’s greatest long- term asset and is vital for food processing plants, dairy farms, manufacturing not to mention quality of life and health. What is less known is the dirty water that flows to treatment plants from residences and commercial food processing plants holds millions, if not billions, of dollars of untapped value.

In 2008, the state comptroller estimated New York treatment plants required $13.6 billion in upgrades. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) estimated $36 billion in funding would be required over the next 20 years.

The urgent need to invest in New York’s municipal wastewater treatment industry also presents an opportunity.  Instead of merely sustaining outdated systems, the state has the opportunity to invest in technology to create the foundation for energy independent wastewater treatment that treat influent more efficiently and use the byproduct of the treatment process, organic sludge, to create energy. Technology is readily available to convert the organic matter in wastewater to biogas that can be used to heat the plant and provide a reliable and steady source of energy to sustain operations.

At the same time, New York State’s end-of-life facilities consume vast amounts of energy. Outdated treatment processes and plant design, and obsolete controls and equipment cause greater than necessary energy consumption.  With an average electricity use of 1,480 kWh/MG (per million gallons), New York’s wastewater sector uses approximately 25 percent more electricity on a per unit basis than the national average of 1,200 kWh/MG, according to New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). New York’s higher energy use is partially due to the widespread use of activated sludge, an energy intensive process for secondary treatment, as well as compliance with stringent NYS effluent limits, which often require tertiary or advanced treatment.

Using an anaerobic digester to convert organic waste and an high-efficiency biogas-fueled turbine, the Oakland California East Bay Municipal Utility District wastewater treatment plant could be selling twice as much electricity as it uses by 2020. The East Bay plant relies largely on food processing waste from area plants but several plants in Europe and Canada are energy independent solely by converting sanitary sewage to biogas. At least two plants in New York – Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek and Gloversville Johnstown wastewater treatment plants – are creating and storing biogas to fuel their operations.