Every year, nearly 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater flow directly into New York City waterways—the Hudson, East, and the Bronx River, among others—thanks to the city’s outdated, overtaxed wastewater system. The Gowanus Canal alone has 13 Combined Sewer Overflow sites.
Among the actions the New York City Department of Environmental Protection is taking to reduce sewage in our waterways is the Green Infrastructure Grant program. Part of the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan, the grants fund projects that capture rain from impervious surfaces on private property, ultimately keeping it from entering the sewer system.
“By soaking up rain water these projects will help to reduce pollution in our local waterways, including the East River, Gowanus Canal and Jamaica Bay,” DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd said in a written statement announcing the grants.
A new round of grant funding will be made available in 2015 for private property owners throughout the city. More information can be found on DEP’s website here.
The 2014 Green Infrastructure Grant Winners:
Gowanus Arts Rooftop Farm – Park Slope/Gowanus, Brooklyn
The Gowanus Arts Building is a three-story former soap factory with a 6,000-square-foot that will soon house a green roof with vegetable gardens and riverstone blue roof to retain and slow the flow of stormwater from the roof. The vegetable gardens will be used and enjoyed by the building tenants, most notably Spoke the Hub, which has a children’s nutrition, healthy eating and cooking program. The project will manage more than 9,300 gallons of stormwater during each storm.
Madani Halal Rooftop Farm – Ozone Park, Queens
Madani Halal is an industrial abattoir and meat processing facility located in Ozone Park, Queens. The proposed project will involve the installation of intensive green roof vegetable gardens on two of the property’s roofs. The green roofs will absorb nearly 9,000 gallons of stormwater. It is located within the Jamaica Bay watershed.
Montefiore Moses Campus – Norwood, Bronx
Montefiore’s green roof project will be constructed atop a parking garage that is located adjacent to a 28-story residential building that houses Montefiore’s Residents/House Staff. The design includes both extensive green roof systems that will be accessible to residents. The project is located within the East River watershed and will manage more than 15,000 gallons of stormwater.
Paradise on Earth Community Garden – Morrisania/Melrose, Bronx
The New York Restoration Project’s Paradise on Earth Community Garden is located within the East River watershed and is comprised of three lots totaling approximately 10,807 square feet. The garden renovation will include retrofitting existing features into permeable paving and rain gardens/vegetated swales. NYRP’s goals for the garden renovation include facilitating environmental education, supporting urban agriculture, providing a green oasis for the community, and hosting local artist and cultural events. The project will manage approximately 15,000 gallons of stormwater.
Salmar Building Roof Meadow – Sunset Park, Brooklyn
The Salmar Building is mixed commercial/industrial building located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The project will involve a 61,050-square-foot green roof seeded with meadow plant mix. The featured plant on the roof will be native blue lupine, which is known to attract the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly. The project will manage 105,000 gallons of stormwater.
BAM South – Ft. Greene/Downtown, Brooklyn
BAM South is a new construction project, developed by DUMBO-based Two Trees Management, that will incorporate a green roof on the 3rd floor roof. This space will not be directly accessible to residents or visitors but will be visible from a public lobby and the residential units above. Due to the inaccessible nature of the space, the project will be cultivated as a habitat node for pollinators. The project will manage more than 9,500 gallons of stormwater within the East River watershed.
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection announced that it will make $5 million available to community groups, property owners, and nonprofit organizations for green projects that “improve the health of local waterways and enhance community life.”
The Green Infrastructure Program, which is entering its fourth year, focuses primarily on projects that address storm water issues and help absorb rainwater that would otherwise contribute to combined sewer overflows into local waterways. This includes the design and construction of green and blue roofs, rain gardens, rain water harvesting or reuse systems, and permeable or porous surface installation.
“Investing in green infrastructure is a cost-effective way to improve the health of our local waterways, clean the air, green the landscape, increase shade and cool temperatures during the summer while also engaging all New Yorkers in the important work of protecting the environment,” said DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd.
While all private property owners served by combined sewers in NYC are eligible for the Green Infrastructure Program, preference will be given to projects that are located in priority watersheds, are cost-effective, provide matching funds or other contributions, and “include ancillary environmental and community benefits such as increased shade, decreased energy use for cooling buildings, increased awareness about stormwater management, and green jobs development.”
The DEP will host three workshops to explain the eligibility requirements and guide users through the online application, which must be completed by November 13. A fourth technical workshop will be held at DEP headquarters to provide support in computing stormwater calculations and to review conceptual ideas with DEP engineers prior to submitting an application.
October 16, 6:00-7:30PM
Bronx Courthouse – 265 East 161st Street
October 21, 6:00-7:30PM
High School for the Arts – Auditorium
345 Dean Street
October 22, 6:00-7:30PM
The Horticultural Society of New York
148 West 37th Street – 13th Floor
Queens (Technical Workshop)
October 28, 2:00-5:00PM
59-17 Junction Boulevard – 3rd Floor Cafeteria
Over the last three years, the DEP says it has committed more than $11 million to fund 29 different green infrastructure projects through this grant program, resulting in the retention of 13 million gallons of stormwater.
Some of the notable projects funded in past years include:
Brooklyn Navy Yard
Amount: $592,730 Location: 63 Flushing Avenue, Building No. 3, Brooklyn Navy Yard Description: In partnership with Brooklyn Grange, the Brooklyn Navy Yard constructed a 40,000-square-foot commercial rooftop farm. The rooftop farm manages over one million gallons of stormwater per year and reduces CSOs to the East River. The production of fresh local produce creates opportunities for urban agriculture jobs training and volunteerism, education and advocacy.
Amount: $288,000 Location: 809 Westchester Avenue, Longwood, Bronx Description: Osborne Association’s project features an alternating blue roof and green roof system on its building in the Bronx. Green roofs are vegetated roof installations that can absorb rain water in the soil and plants. Blue roofs detain stormwater in trays to create temporary storage and gradual release of the stormwater. This project manages over 240,000 gallons of stormwater per year and reduces CSOs to the East River.
Lenox Hill Neighborhood House
Amount: $40,000 Location: 331 East 70th Street, Lenox Hill, Manhattan Description: The Lenox Hill Neighborhood House built two rooftop gardens that manage up to 63,000 gallons of stormwater per year and provide its clients with fresh vegetables. The rooftop gardens capture rain water and reduce CSOs to the East River.
Today’s post comes to us via I Quant NY, a fantastic blog that uses NYC Open Data to tell stories about our city. I Quant NY is authored by Ben Wellington who is a Visiting Assistant Professor in The City & Regional Planning Program at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he focuses on the cross section of Open Data and City Planning.
If you have ever tried to visit a NYC beach shortly after it rains heavily, you may be disappointed to find that beach closed.
The reason is one of every NYC environmentalist’s worst nightmares: Combined Sewer Outflows (CSOs). Put simply, New York City’s sewage goes to the same place as its street drainage. That works fine until we get so much rain that the sewage treatment plants can’t handle both the storm water and the sewage flowing through our sewers. As a result, this combination of stormwater and sewage overflows and that resulting backup is released into our very own New York City waterways. For the curious, check out this great page by the DEP which include descriptions of CSOs and maps of the outflows.
So back to the beach— what causes it to close exactly? Well, the city monitors its waterways for Fecal Coliform, something that is as gross as it sounds. Specifically, its a bacteria that grows in the intestines of warm blooded animals. High level of fecal coliform indicates a high probability of raw sewage in the water. If levels go above 1,000 coliform per 100ml of water, beaches are closed in accordance with state regulations.
To find the dirtiest water in New York City (or at least the most sewage-full water, since there are many different ways to measure water quality), I turned to Harbor Water Sampling Data released as Open Data by the DEP. The dataset includes samples from dozens of sites back to 2008.
I explored the mean, minimum, median and max levels of fecal coliform at each site, but to decide which area was the dirtiest, I calculated the percent of days sampled at the site that registered as too dirty to swim in (i.e. above the safe level of 1000 coliform / 100ml).
The Top 10 dirtiest water sample locations by that measure are below:
The dirtiest water? Coney Island Creek, which sits between Coney Island and the rest of Brooklyn. Not far behind it is Bergen Basin, near JFK. These two are at the top of the list by the mean measurement as well. The Bronx River is number 3, Alley Creek is 4 and Bergen Basin comes back for number 5. At all five of these spots, samples came in as having too much fecal coliform to swim in more than half the time! So I mapped out these five “fecal hot spots” below:
Spots 6 – 10 go to two sites in the Gowanus Canal, Flushing Creek and another site in both The Bronx River and Coney Island Creek.
To expand beyond the top 10 spots, I created the interactive map below, which includes all of the harbor locations that were measured in the DEP data. Just like the analysis above, I mapped the percentage of time that water levels were unsafe for swimming. Larger circles indicate a higher percentage of unsafe days, and thus dirtier water. Clicking on a circle gives you fuller details for that site.
Note that the larger circles appear more inland. The conclusion? If you are going to swim in NYC, I guess the rule of thumb is to stay away from anything with the word “creek” in its name (and of course “canal”) and head toward the rivers. The one exception seems to be the Bronx River. I suppose its sort of intuitive… interior waterways have much less water to dilute waste matter and they generally move slower than their large river counterparts. (Of course this is more of a theoretical swim. If you are ACTUALLY going to swim, hit up the beaches!) The best part of all of this? I may have just discovered the origin of the old saying “Up sh*t creek without a paddle.”
-Analysis done in Excel (pivot tables) -Map formed in QGIS and then exported to CartoDB -All Data used can be found here.
On August 13th, New York State witnessed the greatest 24-hour rainfall, 13.27 inches, in its recorded history. The state record – last set in 2011 – was broken in West Islip, Long Island, fewer than 30 miles from the Queens border.
A flash flood watch went in effect throughout New York City, and beaches in Brooklyn and Staten Island were closed to swimmers the following day. The heavy rain had overloaded sewer mains, necessitating the release of untreated sewage directly into local waterways.
If the City’s climate scientists are right, New York will steadily become a wetter city, subject to more frequent and intense rainfall – and thus, more overloaded sewers and water-related health risks.
And at the very same time that New York’s climate is shifting, the City is engaged in what will be a decades-long effort to address a long-standing problem: the need to capture stormwater before it overwhelms sewers and treatment plants, triggering the release of untreated sewage into Jamaica Bay, the Bronx River, and other waterways.
Average annual precipitation currently ranges between 43 and 50 inches in New York City, depending on location. The New York City Panel on Climate Change notes that, between 1900 and 2011, precipitation in Central Park increased about .7 inches every decade.
Almost 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater are discharged annually into New York City’s waterways.
And perhaps more importantly, in its Climate Risk Information 2013 report, the Panel adds that “larger percentage increases are expected in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme precipitation.” The Panel defines an extreme precipitation event as one with more than 1 inch of rain.
Today, as little as a quarter-inch of rain can overwhelm municipal sewers. The end result of extreme – and not so extreme – weather is ongoing contamination of our local environment. Almost 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater are discharged annually from over four-hundred combined sewage overflows (CSOs) into New York City’s waterways.
The scale of the problem that the City is trying to solve is “huge,” said Larry Levine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program.
An Over-Taxed Wastewater System
Climate change adds a further layer of complication to what has already been a pressing problem for New York City: stormwater management.
The de Blasio administration is working to address two parallel issues. First, large sections of the city rely on what is now considered an outmoded sewer system.
[A second, entirely separate issue is the fact that areas of the city like Staten Island’s east shore and sections of eastern Queens do not even have proper storm drains. These communities were developed on an “ad-hoc basis”, often in low-lying, marshy areas. Neighborhoods like New Dorp Beach and South Beach on Staten Island, which were devastated by Superstorm Sandy, are now racing against time to put stormwater infrastructure into place.]
Much of the city, however, relies on what is known as a combined sewer system. Household and industrial wastewater, rainwater, and street runoff are all collected in the same sewers and then conveyed together to the City’s treatment plants. Approximately 70 percent of New York’s sewers are combined says the City.
New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants together treat 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily. The City says it is able to remove about 85% to 95% of pollutants from wastewater before it is disinfected with chlorine and then discharged back into local waterways.
But 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.
Indeed, New York City residents might be surprised to see the results of a recent six-year study which looked at 15 Hudson River estuary sites in the five boroughs. The majority of samples collected from sites like the Dyckman Street Beach in the Bronx, the Pier 96 Kayak Launch, and the Battery found that the water was safe for swimming.
The study, carried out by Hudson Riverkeeper, in conjunction with CUNY Queens College and Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, actually collected data from 74 estuary locations between New York Harbor and Waterford, Saratoga County.
Nonetheless, the other story is that one-quarter of the water samples collected from the 15 New York City estuary sites failed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “safe swim guidelines” for fecal contamination.
Last year, New York ranked 20th in beach water quality out of thirty states.
Perhaps more telling, the percentage of failing New York City samples jumped from ten percent in dry weather to thirty-five percent after wet weather. Wet weather was defined as at least one-quarter inch of cumulative rainfall in the preceding three days.
The entire state is facing similar issues. Last year, New York ranked 20th in beach water quality out of thirty states, the Natural Resources Defense Council found. Thirteen percent of samples collected at local beaches throughout the state exceeded EPA “safe swim” bacterial levels.
Combined sewage overflow (CSO) releases are seen as a primary culprit in local waterway fecal contamination.
Toxic Releases and Their Impact
Untreated human waste, and the pathogenic bacteria and viruses that come with it, is the most well known component of CSO discharges. The most common illness associated with swimming in sewage-polluted water is gastroenteritis, says the EPA.
Gastroenteritis occurs in a variety of forms that can have one or more of the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache or fever. Children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk.
Swimmers and others who cross paths with a CSO release can encounter debris flushed down toilets (syringes, tampon applicators, etc.) and trash washed off city streets. Any substance on city streets, or poured down storm drains, can end up in a CSO.
Riverkeeper’s website provides a disturbing list of compounds that have been found in CSOs: ammonia; pesticides; petroleum products (from gas stations and auto repair shops); toxic metals; and other hazardous substances like paints, oils, solvents and cleaners.
CSO discharges can also damage local ecosystems because their elevated nutrient content can combine with hot weather to create dangerous toxic algae blooms. These blooms are extremely hazardous to humans and animals, and can create “dead zones” in local waterways.
Similarly, CSO releases containing food waste, and dead plant and animal tissue, deplete oxygen needed by fish and plant life to survive.
“Last night’s [July 2nd, 2014] heavy rain caused another Combined Sewer Overflow event,” wrote neighborhood resident and local blogger Katia Kelly.
“By 11 PM, much of the waterway was covered with raw sewage. The smell was unbelievable…It is unfathomable to think that the new residents of the 700 unit Lightstone Group Project at the shores of the canal will have to deal with this every time it rains heavily.”
One of those residents happens to work for local City Council Member Steve Levin. Levin said that he had spoken with the City’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Housing Authority about the back-ups. “It’s hard to say what’s going on,” he stated, but added that he believed the back-ups were caused by “some combination” of the CSO releases into the canal, and plumbing issues within the development itself.
Levin stressed that NYCHA had been very responsive in dealing with similar issues at other developments in the area. He also noted that long-term clean-up plans for the Gowanus Canal included “sewage holding tanks” that would help to control the releases.
“We would like to see as much of an effort as possible,” Levin said, “to determine what’s going on in the intervening years before all of the [sewage management] infrastructure is implemented.” He said it would be “helpful” if DEP could examine all of the existing infrastructure in the surrounding area and “make sure that everything is in good repair.”
Neither the DEP nor the state Department of Environmental Conservation would respond to questions for this story about CSO releases into the Gowanus Canal, or sewage back-ups at the Gowanus Houses.
According to state law, residents must be notified within four hours of a sewage overflow. The state DEC must report the estimated amount of the overflow, the location and duration, the reason, and a description of steps taken to control the release from happening again.
The lack of publicly-available data on rain-related CSO releases is technically a violation of state law, said Phillip Musegaas, an attorney with Riverkeeper and director of its Hudson River Program. But, he added, there is a straightforward reason for the lack of data: the City does not know exactly how much sewage is coming out of each of its 426 CSO release points during rain events.
The City estimates the size of releases using modeling based on the amount of rainfall and the impact of similar rain events in the past. City residents can check online to see if a water quality advisory has been issued for their area.
Some of these “areas” are very broad, encompassing multiple neighborhoods, and making it hard to know what is happening at the local level. Musegaas said that Riverkeeper has repeatedly raised the problematic nature of this method of tracking with the City to no avail.
“Why not install monitors on the biggest CSO’s? Pick twenty or thirty,” said Musegaas.
Musegaas added that climate change also made the use of modeling more questionable. “If you’re basing your modeling on one place [rainfall measured at LaGuardia Airport] and one year, that’s a problem.”
Why does the lack of data about releases of raw sewage into an already polluted waterway like the Gowanus matter? “The thing that’s going to make you actually physically ill is what comes from the CSOs – it’s raw sewage,” said Council Member Levin.
Neither the City nor the State responded to questions about how releases from CSOs across the city are tracked.
Some communities living close to CSO release points are taking the lack of real-time data into their own hands. The Newtown Creek Alliance is now attempting to track local CSO releases and alert area residents by text message when flushing their toilets will send waste directly into the creek.
It is important to note that, during the summer months, the City collects and then publishes weekly data about water quality in 70 locations across the five boroughs. The data is published on a monthly basis the rest of the year. The latest available data is from August 18th through August 21st.
What’s the Goal? The City and State Face Off on Water Quality Standards
CSO discharges operate in a grey area relative to federal and state clean water regulations. They are essentially pollution releases that are managed by government.
“The City is supposed to reduce [these releases],” said Larry Levine of the NRDC. “What would be illegal is if they don’t follow through on specific plans [to reduce volume].”
And the City is actively working on a long-term plan to reduce CSO releases based on a series of “Consent Orders” it has entered into with the State. 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.
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.”
The areas targeted for CSO reduction are: Alley Creek, the Hutchinson River, the Bronx River, Coney Island Creek, Flushing Bay, Flushing Creek, the Gowanus Canal, Jamaica Bay and its tributaries, Newtown Creek, and Westchester Creek.
However, the state DEC 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 City’s proposed long-term CSO control plan unlawfully failed to identify CSO controls that would either clean up Alley Creek enough to allow full fishable/swimmable use or, if that were not attainable, clean up Alley Creek enough to allow…[that] use on a seasonal basis,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wrote in a document filed with the New York State Supreme Court this June.
The City “misses the mark,” said Schneiderman, by attempting to only adhere to state water quality standards that are not as stringent as federal standards. “Under the federal Clean Water Act, DEC’s regulation of pollutant discharges to such water bodies as Alley Creek, can be no less stringent than the requirements set by federal law.”
The water quality standards that are ultimately established for Alley Creek could set the tone for the nine other waterbody plans to come, said Levine. The State and the City are now in litigation.
‘Green Infrastructure’ Will be Key
The State and the City have reached agreement, however, on the use of green infrastructure to “improve the overall water quality in New York Harbor waters.”
The idea is to capture and make use of rainwater at the source, before it enters the city’s combined sewer system. By changing its fundamental approach to stormwater management, the City is not only reducing pollution levels in local waterways, it is also preparing for climate change.
A State order requires that by 2030 the City be able to divert the first inch of rain from 10 percent of New York’s impervious surfaces using a green infrastructure “adaptive management approach.”
Examples of green infrastructure projects include: blue roofs and green roofs, which use mechanical devices or vegetation to slow roof water from draining too quickly; porous pavement for parking lots so water can be absorbed into the ground; tree pits and streetside swales for roadways so water can pool in underground holding areas and dissipate in the ground or through plants; wetlands and swales in parks; and rain barrels in some residential areas.
The State’s order requires five-year incremental milestones to meet the 10 percent target, and annual reporting on progress. The City has committed $187 million toward meeting the first five-year target in 2017.
And the City says it will utilize an estimated $2.4 billion of public and private funding over the next 18 years to install more green infrastructure technologies. Through the order, the City maintains flexibility to prioritize green investments in neighborhoods that it says “will benefit most from reductions in combined sewer overflows.”
How much of a difference can green infrastructure make?
The City estimates that its use could lead to the annual removal of approximately 1.5 billion gallons of CSO releases by 2030. Roughly 8.4 billion gallons could be removed by 2045, using green and “targeted” gray infrastructure.
That’s almost one-third of the estimated 30 billion gallons released by CSOs each year.
“Green infrastructure is the right solution,” said Larry Levine. “The City is making some serious progress.” But, Levine cautioned that solutions to the city’s wastewater problem are going to be “long-term.”
And, Levine added, the City “should improve its stormwater management standards for new development projects.” Standards for new buildings should require on-site management – through green infrastructure, not discharge into sewers – “of at least the first one-inch of rainfall in any storm,” Levine said.
A similar approach is already mandated in other parts of New York State.
Instead, the City requires new development sites “to temporarily hold on to runoff and then release it slowly into sewers,” says Levine. “That approach helps to reduce overflows but, by the City’s own calculations, it’s much less effective than keeping that runoff out of the sewers entirely,” he concluded.
The pressure to address stormwater management is unrelenting. At the time this article was being finalized for publication, a flash flood warning was issued for New York City. “Rain rates up to 2 inches per hour are expected,” said the National Weather Service.
And climate change makes the goal of a truly sustainable city – one which no longer pollutes the environment around it – both more challenging and more urgent at the same time.
Is it reasonable to expect that all of the city’s waterways should eventually meet the federal requirement that they be swimmable and fishable?
“Absolutely,” responded Phillip Musegaas. “That’s what the Clean Water Act calls for…to make sure that these public resources are healthy…It’s a good goal to have.”