New York City air pollution levels are lower than they have been in over fifty years. New York Harbor is the cleanest it’s been in a century.

So says the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which released its 2013 progress report earlier this month. The city attributes improvements in the Harbor’s water quality to major investments in wastewater treatment. And enhanced air quality is “largely” due to the phasing out of heavy heating oils.

“This dramatic reduction in [air] pollution has prevented 800 deaths, and 2000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations from heart and lung diseases each year compared to 2008,” said the city’s report.

In addition to maintaining the daily water supply for nine million city and suburban residents, DEP’s almost 6,000 employees are responsible for collecting and treating the 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater produced daily by New York homes, schools and businesses; and reducing air, noise, and hazardous materials pollution.

The To-Do List

The city’s environmental “to-do” list, as laid out in the DEP’s 2011-14 strategic plan, includes one-hundred specific objectives ranging from: “restore wetlands habitat in and around Jamaica Bay” to “develop a leak detection system for [water] customers” to “protect the water supply from hydrofracking for natural gas in the New York City watershed”.

[While the DEP opposes hydraulic fracturing in the city’s vast upstate watershed, it notes that it helped to facilitate approval for the first natural gas pipeline projects to be built within the five boroughs in decades, the Spectra (cross-Hudson) and Rockaway pipelines.]

The DEP, led by Bloomberg-appointed Commissioner Carter Strickland, says eighty-five of its strategic objectives have been accomplished. “Considerable progress” has been made toward making the agency “the safest, most efficient, cost-effective, and transparent water utility in the nation.”

Hello Tunnel No. 3

According to Strickland, one of the agency’s “notable” accomplishments in 2013 was the activation of the Manhattan leg of City Water Tunnel No. 3.

There is an urgency to the work on Tunnel No. 3, the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history. The new tunnel is needed in order to provide “critical redundancy” to the city’s water supply, especially while the city inspects and repairs Tunnel No. 1.

The city has also moved ahead with a $1.7 billion program to repair the Delaware Aqueduct, which delivers water to New York City from the western section of the city’s watershed. The aqueduct is reportedly leaking between 15 and 35 million gallons per day, and has been cited as an example of the aging of the city’s water supply infrastructure.

The DEP also reported a ground breaking on a separate $21.2 million project to connect the Catskill and Delaware aqueducts, which are the two main water supply lines to the city.

And in 2013 the city opened an Ultraviolet Disinfection Facility in Westchester County to treat potentially harmful organisms in the city’s water supply without the use of chemicals. The city says that the $1.2 billion facility is the largest of its kind in the world, and that it “ensures that New Yorkers continue to enjoy the highest quality drinking water in the nation”.

The DEP also focused on local water quality and sustainability projects, including the rehabilitation of the 1.3 mile Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel in order to bring oxygen-rich water from New York Harbor into the Canal.

Among the projects yet to be completed? The massive Croton water filtration plant in the Bronx’ Van Cortlandt Park. The city says it will be done this year.

The Challenges Ahead

But some argue that the city has a long way to go in managing its water supply and other environmental infrastructure.

“We are at a crossroads,” says Paul Gallay, president of Hudson Riverkeeper, a non-profit which monitors both the metro-area’s water supply and the Hudson River and its tributaries. “A lot of money has been invested in the water supply system but there are threats that need careful attention.”

Gallay said that both lead in pipes and the volume of pharmaceutical products in the water supply deserve more scrutiny.

And Gallay stressed that the city needs to “ramp-up” how it deals with stormwater. The state agrees, saying that a wastewater infrastructure “crisis” is in the making throughout New York.

Currently, Gallay explained, anything more than a half-inch of rain overwhelms the city’s sewers, which are then opened into local waterways. “Every year, old sewers flooded by stormwater release more than 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the New York Harbor alone” notes the state Department of Environmental Conservation on its website.

What’s the answer? The state says that millions of dollars in lost federal Clean Water Act funding must be restored. Gallay added that the city and state have agreed to start thinking outside the box about how to handle stormwater, but it needs to happen more quickly.

Stormwater, he argued, should be “used as a resource that can cool the city.” Gallay said that green infrastructure solutions like rooftop gardens and permeable pavement can both absorb water and lower urban heat levels.

Upstate and Downstate

But of particular concern to Riverkeeper is New York City’s relationship with upstate watershed communities. The city has to periodically release excess water from its upstate reservoirs into nearby streams and creeks, which local elected officials have said degrades water quality.

On January 9th, the city announced that it had begun to release “high-quality” water from the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskills in order to remain within the 90-percent storage limit required by state regulators, and “to further reduce the potential for flooding during the late winter and spring”.

The DEP said that it planned to reach a release rate of 300 million gallons per day.

Previous discharges into the lower Esopus [Creek] have created “terrible problems with turbidity…[the Esopus is] full of mud from the city’s reservoirs,” said Gallay.

News reports in the upstate Daily Freeman said that current releases come “while there is a low turbidity level in the west basin [of the reservoir]”. Nonetheless, “among complaints from property owners…has been the strength of water releases [which] has eroded stream banks and increased downstream flooding,” wrote William Kemble in a January 9th Daily Freeman article.

The city, maintained Gallay, cannot provide water to its residents on “the backs” of upstate residents.

Will the de Blasio administration work with upstate communities to address their concerns about the city’s management of its massive watershed? “I’m confident that they’ll be responsive,” said Gallay.