Throughout January, we will be featuring critical local environmental issues that are likely to see significant action this year.
In bright sunshine, a group of New Yorkers in flowing garb wades into the waters of Coney Island Creek. They run their arms through the glistening water, and then raise their hands in prayer.
This beautiful scene appears in a short film about Coney Island Creek by Charles Denson which shows the love that local residents have for the Creek, and the multitude of ways they use it.
Coney Island Creek, like all of the City’s waterways, has endured decades of pollution and a host of environmental stresses. One major source of pollution into the Creek has been the periodic release of untreated sewage and stormwater from a sewer outflow point.
The City says it has invested $166 million in order to drastically reduce the releases to a level of 37 million gallons entering the Creek per year.
Thirty Billion Gallons
In total, almost 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater are discharged annually into New York City’s waterways. The releases cause environmental damage, and put kayakers, swimmers, fishing enthusiasts and other New Yorkers into potential contact with pathogenic bacteria and other toxic substances.
Environmental groups and the State of New York say the City is not doing enough to ensure that local waterways like Coney Island Creek and Jamaica Bay are safe for public use all year round.
A fundamental dispute between the City and the State is how far the City should be expected to go to meet the goals of the federal Clean Water Act- that all public waterways be fishable and swimmable.
Advocates also say that the City’s efforts to address the problem do not incorporate public input in a meaningful or transparent way.
“The [City’s] current LTCP [Long Term Sewage Overflow Control Plan] development process is deeply flawed, both in process and in substance,” said a coalition of watchdog and environmental groups in a recent letter to the City.
The City argues that it has made significant progress, more than doubling the amount of raw sewage captured prior to storm-related releases. Almost $2 billion has been spent to control raw sewage discharges, and there are plans to spend $2 billion more, they add.
Last month, the State announced plans to update its water quality regulations. This pushes the issue forward, and may compel the City to adopt more stringent sewage control goals than are currently in place. The public can ask questions and offer their opinions about the updated standards at a hearing with state officials on January 27th.
Raw Sewage Releases: A Systemic Issue
Approximately 70 percent of New York’s sewers are combined. This means that household and industrial wastewater, rainwater, and street runoff -1.3 billion gallons daily- are all collected in the same sewers and conveyed together to the City’s 14 treatment plants.
During heavy rains or snow, combined sewers can fill to capacity and are then unable to carry household and storm sewage to treatment plants. The mix of excess storm water and untreated sewage must be released directly into the city’s waterways.
There are over 400 combined sewer overflow (CSO) release points throughout the five boroughs. As little as one-tenth of an inch of rain can trigger a CSO release. This happens about 75 times per year, say environmental groups.
And the issue is becoming more pressing as local rainfall becomes more frequent and intense due to climate change.
A State-Mandated Plan for Pollution Control
CSO releases are technically a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. To remedy this, the City is in the midst of executing a three-part strategy to reduce the releases as required by a 2012 “Consent Order” it has entered into with the State.
First, the City has committed to spending $1.6 billion more on grey infrastructure, which would ultimately reduce CSO discharges by an estimated 8.4 billion gallons per year. Recent grey infrastructure projects completed by the City include upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities, storm sewer expansions and the construction of CSO retention tanks.
Second, the City has committed to installing green infrastructure, like green roofs, porous pavement and “bioswales” (large curbside plantings), that will absorb one inch of rainwater across 8,000 acres of the city. The 8,000 acres represents 10 percent of impervious surfaces, like streets and sidewalks, in all areas of the city with combined sewers.
The idea is to capture stormwater run-off before it reaches and overwhelms sewers, reducing CSO releases by another 1.5 billion gallons per year.
Finally, in the next three years, the City must produce plans for ten separate water bodies or “sewer sheds” – areas of the city where raw sewage is released into waterways.
Addressing the City’s “Sewer Sheds”
According to the City, the goal of each plan “is to identify appropriate CSO controls necessary to achieve waterbody-specific…standards, consistent with the Federal CSO Policy and the water quality goals of the Clean Water Act.”
Each sewer shed plan will contain some combination of green and grey infrastructure solutions. The State must sign off on each plan, as it is responsible for enforcing federal Clean Water regulations.
The City’s schedule for completion and submittal of its long-term CSO control plans runs through 2017:
- Alley Creek- June, 2013
- Westchester Creek- June, 2014
- Hutchinson River- September, 2014
- Flushing Creek- December, 2014
- Bronx River- June, 2015
- Gowanus Canal- June, 2015
- Coney Island Creek- June, 2016
- Jamaica Bay and Tributaries- June, 2016
- Flushing Bay- June, 2017
- Newtown Creek- June, 2017
The ten area plans will form the basis of a citywide CSO reduction plan to be completed by the end of 2017.
Advocates say that the goal is to find cost-effective ways to achieve the “highest attainable use” for each of the city’s water bodies. But the City does not appear to be in agreement with the State and environmental groups about what is actually attainable.
Struggling to Reach Agreement on Water Quality Standards
All sides agree that the City is making real progress on a number of fronts, including its construction of hundreds of green infrastructure projects throughout the five boroughs.
Nonetheless, the State Department of Environmental Conservation has rejected the first long-term plan submitted by the City, which covers Alley Creek in Queens. At issue is to what extent the City actually plans to clean up Alley Creek. The City aimed lower than what the State says is required by federal law.
The State and the City are now in litigation.
The long-term goal should be that all of New York City’s waterways are “fishable and swimmable,” argues the State. The new water quality standards released by the State this past December are a “big deal,” Larry Levine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, told NYER.
The NRDC is reviewing the draft standards now, as is the City. A recent article by Levine for the NRDC staff blog argues that New York City leads the U.S. in the category of “most untreated sewage discharged to waterways.”
The City is not taking the long term CSO reduction plans for each sewer shed seriously enough, says Levine. He maintains that the plans submitted thus far -for Alley Creek, Hutchinson River, Bronx River and Flushing Creek- do not include significant pollution reduction targets.
This jeopardizes the overall effort to support truly healthy local water bodies, say advocates.
“The first two parts of the  agreement [between the City and the State],” observed Levine, “are projected to reduce annual sewage overflows by about 12 billion gallons per year. That still leaves 18 billion gallons…that’s why the third part of the deal is so critical. The Long Term Control Plans are meant to close the gap.”
The City declined to comment on Mr. Levine’s article.
“The Issue Is Cost”
The City responds to its critics by arguing that it is doing everything it can with the financial resources at hand. Projects to improve harbor water quality are not funded by City tax dollars. Rather, the city’s water rate payers –building owners and ultimately their tenants- pick up the tab for new infrastructure.
The Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for developing and implementing the City’s CSO reduction plan. The agency oversees New York City’s water supply, sewage treatment and stormwater management systems. The DEP is also responsible for making sure that local waterways are in compliance with state and federal Clean Water regulations.
At a public meeting in December, DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd stated that the agency was retiring about a half billion dollars in debt every year, and adding a “couple billion more” annually.
Current efforts to control sewage and stormwater releases –per the 2012 agreement with the State- will only add more debt, Lloyd said.
Questions About Public Participation
As part of its planning process, the DEP holds a public meeting each time it completes a CSO reduction plan and is preparing to submit it to the State. For instance, a public meeting to discuss the City’s CSO reduction plan for the Bronx River is scheduled for February.
Contrary to the step by step environmental review process that typically exists for development projects, legislative updates, etc., there is no formalized public oversight as the City develops its long-term CSO control plans. The DEP acknowledged at a public meeting in December that it does not share the plans with the public before they are submitted to the State for review.
Instead, a PowerPoint summary is presented at the meeting for each sewer shed. The public can ask questions at the meeting and submit comments in writing. Advocates say it is unclear what happens to these comments.
A November 17th letter to DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd from the SWIM [Stormwater Infrastructure Matters] Coalition stated that, “we cannot emphasize strongly enough that it is impossible at this time for us or any member of the public to evaluate DEP’s proposal or its underlying analysis, as the public is merely provided a PowerPoint presentation.”
SWIM’s steering committee includes representatives from Riverkeeper, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Bronx River Alliance.
The letter, which was submitted in response to the Flushing Creek plan, said the City’s PowerPoint “was missing essential information” such as “CSO volume reductions and water quality improvements” that would result from the different options -grey and green- available to the City.
Why had the City gone with a disinfection strategy for addressing raw sewage releases, SWIM asked. “As presented, the DEP gave the public absolutely no information as to their green infrastructure plans for this watershed,” they added.
Before submittal to the State, the City “should publish -for public comment- the actual plans,” SWIM argued.
SWIM also maintained that in its presentations to the public, the City has not been clear about what the State mandated for each long term control plan. The City’s roles and responsibilities as required by the 2012 consent order should be transparent, said the Coalition.
The DEP declined to comment on the November 17th letter from SWIM.
Every year, more New Yorkers are returning to the waterways that surround our city. From kayaking in Jamaica Bay to swimming in the Hudson River, we are re-connecting with our coastal habitat of islands, rivers, creeks and bays.
This year, the City and State will continue to debate (or litigate) the fundamental implications of the Clean Water Act for New York City’s waterways. Environmental groups will be watching to see whether the City’s sewer shed plans will reflect any progress made in this conversation.
More information about the City’s efforts to control CSO releases and its Long Term Control Plan can be found here.
Written comments regarding the State’s updated water quality standards may be submitted on or before Monday, February 2nd.
Photo credit: Matt Green via Creative Commons