New York is a trashy town. Each year, we generate over 3 million tons of residential waste. And another 3 million tons of commercial trash.
Last spring, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared war on all of this garbage. As part of his OneNYC plan, he gave the city a goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030—that’s the “0 x 30” signs you might notice on garbage trucks.
The de Blasio administration aims to achieve this goal by increasing the amount of trash that gets recycled or composted. But, the city is also trying to tame New Yorkers’ consumption habits—cutting down the amount of plastic bags, bottles and takeout cups we use will ultimately mean less trash going to landfills.
With that in mind, the city just announced a media blitz to reduce waste and combat litter. The ads will feature Birdie, the government mascot who just starred in the city’s “B.Y.O.” (Bring Your Own)campaign. Birdie will again remind New Yorkers to “bring their own”—in this case, reusable mugs, bottles and bags. You’ll soon see the ads on sanitation trucks and at bus stops.
According to GreeNYC, New Yorkers had “overwhelmingly positive feelings” towards Birdie’s first B.Y.O campaign. It even increased their feelings of responsibility for reducing waste: 14% of New Yorkers reported that it got them into the habit of carrying reusable bags, mugs and bottles; 36% reported that they now intend to always carry reusable bags; 42% intend to always carry a reusable water bottle; and 27% intend to always carry a reusable mug.
Still, getting 9 million New Yorkers to change their habits will probably take more than ads. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection is pitching in with a fleet of 500 new or repaired public water fountains and water bottle refilling stations across the five boroughs.
Trash cans will also be part of the solution. For now, many city trash cans are part of the problem—they’re teetering mountains of waste. So, as part of this new push, the Department of Sanitation is calling on New Yorkers to Adopt-a-Basket through a program that teams local residents, businesses and community groups with the city to monitor and change liners in trash baskets on busy streets.
Spare Our Waterways
Along with sparing landfills and streets, the city also hopes this new campaign will help keep our local waterways clean and healthy. After all, some of that errant trash makes its way into sewers and then winds its way into larger waterways. That leaves a lot of “plastic in our harbor and ocean…[which] is an assault on the environment,” says Judith A. Enck, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“We are essentially turning our waters into a landfill,” Enck said. “The best way to remove trash from our waters is to keep it out in the first place. We need to reduce waste at the source. NYC’s Bring Your Own is a terrific initiative that should be repeated in other communities.”
The Cannonsville Dam, which protects a major New York City drinking water reservoir, is operational again after a construction project struck a pressurized aquifer below the dam.
The incident shines a spotlight on the enormous complexity of the city’s water supply system, and the scores of upstate communities who live in its shadow.
At full capacity, the Cannonsville reservoir holds almost 100 billion gallons of water.
The Department of Environmental Protection, which manages New York City’s water supply and related infrastructure, said in a statement Sunday that the decision to resume normal operations at the dam was made in consultation with federal engineers, and “comes after weeks of testing and around-the-clock monitoring that proved the dam is safe, stable and uncompromised by the cloudy seepage that began three weeks ago.”
In mid-July, initial drilling for a new hydro-electric facility at Cannonsville inadvertently tapped into an underground aquifer. “All drilling work ceased when the workers noticed the flow of turbid [soil-clouded] water coming from a rock embankment near the [dam’s] release chamber,” the City said in its statement.
DEP spokesman Adam Bosch told NYER that testing has confirmed that the water is being released underground about 50 yards below the dam, and that the dam’s integrity was never threatened.
Bosch said that the hydro-electric project proposed for Cannonsville is now being re-assessed.
The proposed facility, in combination with two other City-run upstate hydro-electric projects, would have the exciting potential to make New York City’s water supply system “energy neutral.” This means that the electricity generated by the three projects would be comparable to the amount of energy required to manage and filter the City’s entire water supply.
Taking steps to protect residents living below the dam
The Cannonsville reservoir and dam are located outside the town of Deposit in western Delaware County. The reservoir holds 95.7 billion gallons at full capacity.
In other words, prepare for what would happen if the dam failed when the reservoir was 100 percent full.
And, taking no chances, the City began to drain water from the reservoir into the west branch of the Delaware River as it assessed whether there was any structural threat to the dam. The draining has been stopped and, as of yesterday, the reservoir was at almost 75 percent capacity.
Adam Bosch said that within the week the DEP will seal the construction bore holes that released the pressurized groundwater.
“Intensive monitoring” at Cannonsville will also continue, says the City. This includes 24-hour observations by on-site staff and surveillance cameras, daily engineering inspections, and near real-time monitoring of water quality and safety instruments inside the dam.
Cannonsville: 120 miles away but absolutely essential to NYC
Completed in 1964, the Cannonsville Reservoir was the last of 19 such reservoirs built as part of New York City’s massive drinking water supply system. The City provides more than one billion gallons of water daily to more than 9 million residents, including 70-plus upstate communities in Ulster, Orange, Putnam and Westchester counties.
The watershed area that drains into the Cannonsville Reservoir is 455 square miles, the largest drainage “basin” in the City’s system.
Drinking water from Cannonsville flows into the West Delaware Tunnel and then travels 44 miles to the upper end of the Rondout Reservoir. From there, it is carried in the 85-mile-long Delaware Aqueduct toward New York City.
A little discussed link to fracking
The Cannonsville dam and reservoir have an interesting connection to the multi-year battle over whether to permit high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State.
The reservoir sits on the western edge of Delaware County, within a few miles of the Broome County line. As the debate over fracking raged, New York City officials pointed out that seismic fault lines run throughout the area, posing a potential threat to the City’s water supply infrastructure if they were disturbed.
And while the City was able to preemptively ban fracking within the New York counties that make up its watershed, it had no control over what was going to happen just over the county line in Broome- despite the presence of underground fault lines.
Indeed, Governor Cuomo openly considered allowing fracking in Broome County before the practice was banned statewide. And some local residents leased land to drilling companies for that purpose.
Historic frustration with New York City control
The Cannonsville reservoir was formed when New York City dammed the west branch of the Delaware River. The town of Cannonsville, for which the dam and reservoir are named, was flooded in the process.
Every day, the New York City DEP releases water from the reservoir into the west branch of the river. Because of concerns about the dam over the last two weeks, the DEP has been releasing three times the normal daily rate of 500 cubic feet of water per second.
City officials say they are now slowly bringing release levels back down to normal levels.
Water is released downstream from Cannonsville under the terms of a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Decree. A “flow program” was agreed upon by New York City and the states of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
But the City’s daily water releases are at times a source of controversy within communities along the west branch.
In a July 31st local TV news segment, some residents of Hancock, which is downstream from Cannonsville, charged that New York City is mis-managing the releases and threatening their local economy.
“We are absolutely done with the way you’ve [New York City] treated us,” said Theresa Allen, a business owner. She charged that cold water releases, especially critical for trout fishing and related tourism activity, dropped by 20 percent in April and May.
“This business, the land it sits on…means nothing if that river is not there and not managed properly,” added Matt Batschelet, who owns a fishing resort on the west branch of the Delaware.
In response, New York City DEP stresses that it has gone to great lengths to work in collaboration with communities that are impacted by the City’s water supply infrastructure and/or constrained by watershed land use regulations.
The City also points to ongoing efforts to support sustainable economic development in its upstate watershed. But Theresa Allen of Hancock notes that besides tourism, “we have no industry in this town anymore.”
What Hancock and other watershed communities do have, however, is proximity to something New York City needs more than anything else- high quality and abundant water.
Can a plastic tub save New York City? The humble rain barrel has a lot to offer- helping residents cut their water bills, keeping raw sewage out of local waterways, and cutting the city’s water consumption.
Managing rainfall more effectively has become a growing focus for New York City. Earlier this month, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and Council Member I. Daneek Miller distributed rain barrels to 200 homeowners in St. Albans, Queens.
The DEP has distributed more than 2,900 rain barrels free of charge since 2008. Participation in the program is by invitation only, says the City. “Rain Barrels will be distributed in an organized fashion by neighborhood over the next three years,” the DEP notes on its website.
The 60-gallon barrels collect water that residents can use for tasks like watering lawns and gardens and washing cars, which helps to lower water bills. The barrels connect directly to a property owner’s downspout in order to capture and store stormwater that falls on the rooftop.
How much of a difference can re-using rainwater make for a New York City home or building owner? A lot, apparently.
Watering lawns and gardens can account for up to 40 percent of an average household’s water use during the summer months, says the City. Water rates in New York City have nearly tripled in the last 15 years, a terrific series by WNYC recently found.
But rain barrels are about more than helping to cut costs for building owners. Neighborhoods like St. Albans in Queens, and sections of Brooklyn and Staten Island, have been plagued by ongoing flooding because the City did not construct proper storm drainage systems when they were first developed.
“My district [southeast Queens] has suffered tremendously from the effects of localized flooding caused by an insufficient drainage system,” observed Council Member Miller in a statement.
By using rain barrels, “local residents are doing their part to help ease flooding conditions and conserve this most precious natural resource,” Miller said.
Absorbing rainwater before it overwhelms local sewers
The barrels are also part of a broader strategy to reduce the amount of stormwater entering storm drains, thus overwhelming local sewers and treatment plants. When this happens, raw sewage must be released into local waterways via combined sewer overflow points.
The rain barrels being distributed in St. Albans will help to protect the health of Jamaica Bay, says the City, because a number of local combined sewer overflow points release raw sewage directly into the Bay.
The DEP also distributed rain barrels this month to 200 Morris Park homeowners in the Bronx. Part of the objective, reiterated the DEP, is to limit combined sewer overflows into the Bronx River and Westchester Creek.
The rain barrel giveaway program is part of the City’s Green Infrastructure Plan that aims to capture stormwater before it can ever enter the sewer system. DEP says it will invest $2.4 billion in green infrastructure projects, such as bioswales on city streets, green roofs and rain gardens, as well as other “source controls”, such as rain barrels.
These investments will “significantly reduce combined sewer overflows” by 2030, says the City.
Cutting NYC’s water consumption by 5 percent
Collecting rain water has another goal too– New York City plans to reduce overall water consumption by five percent in advance of a massive drinking water infrastructure project.
The DEP has begun a project to repair leaks in the Delaware Aqueduct which supplies roughly half of the city’s daily drinking water. In order to complete these repairs to the Aqueduct, the tunnel must be temporarily shut down in 2022.
New York City residents, along with hundreds of thousands of suburban residents, consume over a billion gallons of water per day from the City’s water supply system, which is piped from a series of upstate reservoirs north and west of the city.
Other measures taken by the City to cut water use will include
a $23 million High Efficiency Toilet Replacement Program in “select” residential properties (saving 10 million gallons of water daily);
the installation of activation buttons on spray showers at 400 playgrounds (saving 1.5 million gallons daily during the summer months); and
new, high efficiency fixtures in the bathrooms of 500 City schools (saving nearly 4 million gallons daily during the school year).
The private sector is also getting involved. The Hotel Association of New York City is partnering with DEP to reduce water use at some of its premier hotels by five percent annually. Will we eventually see rain barrels at the Plaza?
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 Bronx River needs your help. Your feedback is wanted at a meeting with the City this Thursday night about how to make the Bronx River cleaner and healthier.
The City says it is investing $26 million in order to reduce the volume of untreated sewage and stormwater released into the river from over 1 billion gallons per year to 592 million gallons annually.
“River of High Bluffs”
Have you had a chance to visit the Bronx River? The Bronx River Alliance provides the following interesting description of the river and its history…
To walk along the Bronx River today is to enter a world slightly apart from the city, where the cry of the redwing blackbird is louder than the hum of cars not twenty feet away.
One of the little-known marvels of the New York City landscape, the 23-mile Bronx River winds down through southern Westchester and the Bronx to define a peaceful corridor of greenery for fishing, strolling, biking, boating and nature study amid the noise and bustle of urban life. It is the only major watercourse within the city limits that is not entirely tidal.
Called Aquehung or “River of High Bluffs” by the Mohegan Indians who first lived and fished along it, the river attracted European traders in the early 1600s for the sleek, fat beaver that proliferated there….The [river’s] water was considered so “pure and wholesome” that during the 1820s and 1830s the New York City Board of Aldermen debated ways to tap into it to supply the growing city with drinking water…
Raw Sewage Releases Threaten the City’s Waterways
While much progress has been made in restoring New York City’s rivers, creeks and bays, they are still threatened by various types of pollution. One ongoing source of contamination is the City’s release of untreated sewage and stormwater into waterways like the Bronx River.
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 release points throughout the five boroughs. Four of them are in the Bronx River.
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 boaters, swimmers, fishing enthusiasts and other New Yorkers into potential contact with pathogenic bacteria and other toxic substances.
A Plan for the Bronx River
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.
The State of New York must sign off on each plan, as it is responsible for enforcing federal Clean Water regulations. The plan for the Bronx River is supposed to be completed and submitted to the State by June, 2015.
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.
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.
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.
** After publishing this post, NYER did receive a response from the NYS Department of Health regarding their testing and treatment policies around cyanotoxins. Please see the update at the bottom.
Toledo, you’re in good company.
The same toxic algae that tainted the water for 400,000 Ohio residents earlier this month is on the rise in New York, too. Blue-green algae blooms have killed pets (at least one dog on Long Island, and possibly another in Essex County), sickened humans, and even clouded the waters of the iconic lakes in both Central and Prospect Parks.
Consuming or even coming into contact with these waters can cause serious health effects for people, pets, and wildlife. And because climate change is expected to make these blooms more frequent, the safety of water supplies throughout the state may be affected.
Tainted By Toxins
Blue-green algae is the common name for a category of algae-like organisms known as cyanobacteria, which occur naturally in freshwater. At low concentrations, they are both harmless and invisible.
But when nutrient levels in the water—particularly phosphorus and nitrogen—soar and combine with hot temperatures, cyanobacteria undergo a population explosion. These “blooms” turn waters shocking shades of pea green, and even more troublesome, can produce harmful toxins called microcystins.
Exposure may cause fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to microcystins—through skin contact, consumption, or respiration—“may cause a wide range of symptoms in humans including fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions.”
“If you see it, avoid it,” advises the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the state’s lead environmental agency. That goes for pets and livestock as well.
A Statewide Situation
Since 2009, New York has been building one of the most robust algae monitoring programs in the country, thanks to a five-year, $750,000 federal grant to the Department of Health. The DEC website maintains a running list of active cyanotoxin notices (and an archive of past blooms), and enables the general public to report their own findings.
According to the NYS DEC, since 2012 “Harmful Algal Blooms” have been found in more than 140 recreation areas, reservoirs, lakes, and ponds in all parts of the state; 34 counties have reported blooms this year alone.
Given the transient nature of the blooms and the DEC’s inability to test every single body of water regularly, it’s likely that many other blue-green algae blooms have come and gone undocumented.
When grant funding for this program runs out in 2016, will the DEC be able to continue monitoring for algal outbreaks? Peter Constantakes, spokesperson for the NYS DEC says yes. “We will continue to seek funding for monitoring and outreach, [and we will] continue to partner with SUNY Stony Brook and other state agencies to gather data.”
Is NYS Water Safe?
As the situation in Ohio has shown, toxic algal blooms can do more than just look gnarly: large eruptions can disrupt entire cities and pose a significant threat to drinking water supplies. This vulnerability is due in large part to the fact that there are no agreed upon methods to test or treat drinking water for mycrocystin toxins.
According to the EPA, “no federal regulatory guidelines for cyanobacteria or their toxins in drinking water or recreational waters exist at this time in the United States.” And even if you can find the toxins, removing them is complicated.
“Drinking water operators must know the growth patterns and species of cyanobacteria that dominates the bloom, the properties of the cyanotoxins… and the most effective treatment process,” the EPA notes. Applying the wrong treatment process at the wrong time could actually release more toxins into the water source.
So, could the situation in Toledo play out in New York State? The answers are murky.
Repeated attempts over the last week to contact the DEC and the NYS Department of Health with regard to reservoir sampling, water treatment, and algal risks have been unsuccessful. The Albany and Rensselaer County Departments of Health have been equally hushed.
Toxic blooms have been found in seven New York State drinking water reservoirs.
In general, it seems that reservoir testing for algal toxins happens on a case-by-case basis when blooms are observed. But without an official response from the DOH, one is left to wonder at the efficacy and safety of such an informal program.
**Please see below for an official response from the DOH.
Don’t Worry, NYC
By contrast, New York City is confident that algal blooms are not an issue. Adam Bosch, spokesperson for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, assures New York City residents that there is no need to worry. “The answer is simple,” he states. “We just don’t have algae in New York City reservoirs.”
“NYC has a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that is targeted at preventing these kind of blooms,” Bosch continues. For the last 20 years, the DEP has worked to protect the forests and lands surrounding the reservoirs and rivers, replacing septic systems, developing a robust forestry program, and working with agricultural producers to reduce run-off.
NYC has a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that is targeted at preventing these kind of blooms.
“These healthy forests suck up all the extra nutrients and are so efficient that you don’t even find algal blooms in the headwaters,” Bosch said. Bill Wegner, staff scientist with Riverkeeper, confirms the DEP’s claims. “The water bodies have to be eutrophic, meaning nutrient-loaded [in order to have algae], and there are no eutrophic reservoirs that are part of the New York City water supply.”
And on the off chance that a bloom did develop? Weekly and monthly sampling of key points in the system means that New York City water is well-tested, some 550,000 times each year. And because the City’s water is pulled from a vast system of 19 reservoirs and three lakes, Bosch reassures that the DEP could switch one off easily without feeling an impact.
Behind the Blooms
Scientists point to a constellation of causes for the increase in blue-green algae blooms. Agricultural runoff (mostly fertilizer and manure), sediment erosion, flows from sewage treatment plants and septic tanks, and runoff from lawns all increase nutrient loads in our lakes and ponds.
And climate change is exacerbating the issue. The increased frequency of heavy rains and flash flooding are causing quick influxes of runoff into our water bodies, while higher summer temperatures create the ideal conditions for algal growth.
“Blooms are going to be longer and more intense,” says Hans Paerl, professor of marine and environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina. “It’s all part of the price we’re paying for climate change.”
Even when the blooms run out of fuel and die off, they can still cause trouble. As the algae sinks to the bottom, bacteria feasts on the decaying matter. This removes oxygen from the water, resulting in “dead zones” which cannot sustain any life.
The Bright Side
There is no doubt that toxic algae is a growing global concern. The EPA calls them a “major environmental problem in all 50 states” and a 2014 report by the National Wildlife Federation found that a majority of the states reporting blooms consider it a “serious” situation.
But, unlike many environmental issues, this is a problem with a relatively attainable solution. New York City’s protected watershed is a case in point.
Fixing the algal bloom explosion throughout New York State will require a significant reduction in the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen entering our water bodies. This means new guidelines for how farmers (and homeowners) apply fertilizer, better livestock management, and tighter control over sewage treatment plants (and combined sewage overflows).
Federal action will be needed, too. This past May, Senator Chuck Schumer urged the EPA to issue guidance and recommendations to local water treatment plants on how best to test for and treat these cyanotoxins. He also pressed the EPA to develop water quality criteria for cyanotoxin levels in ambient water so that states like New York can better identify contaminated lakes and implement programs that will improve water quality.
**An Update From the NYS Department of Health
After publishing this post, NYER did receive a response from the NYS Department of Health regarding their testing and treatment policies around cyanotoxins.
Currently, the DOH tests drinking water for cyanotoxins “on a case-by-case basis,” if there is a report from the DEC of a bloom in close proximity to water intake pipes. Factors that may impact this decision include “size and extent of the bloom relative to the drinking water intake, toxin levels in the bloom, depth of the drinking water intake, duration of the bloom, [and] treatment at the water system.”
Those water samples are analyzed through a partnership with SUNY ESF, and if toxins are found, the DOH will provide guidance to water treatment plant operators and issue a public notification. In general, the DOH feels that conventional drinking water treatment, “consisting of flocculation, coagulation, sedimentation and filtration” is effective at removing any harmful algal cells. However, if the toxins have dissolved into the water, as was the case in Toledo, “additional treatment consisting of activated carbon filtration and/or advanced oxidative processes may be needed. “
A spokesman from the DOH reiterates our earlier point that “there are currently no state or federal drinking water standards or guidance values for cyanotoxins.”
The DOH confirms that the blooms that occurred in the Basic and Tomhannock reservoirs last year did not have any impact on drinking water delivered to consumers. Basic Creek Reservoir is a “back-up source” and not a primary water supply, while the bloom in the Tomhannock was “very localized and away from the drinking water intake.”
The city also provided some great detail on why the New Croton Aqueduct is so significant. The Department of Environmental Protection says that the $177 million rehab project is a “key milestone towards reactivation of the Croton Water Supply System, which can provide between 10 and 30 percent of the city’s daily water needs.”
More Information from the City’s Release:
The Aqueduct was originally placed into service in 1890 and is a 33-mile-long, 13-foot-diameter, brick-lined tunnel that was engineered to convey by gravity up to 290 million gallons of drinking water each day from the New Croton Reservoir in Westchester County to Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx.
The Aqueduct begins just below ground level and reaches a depth of roughly 400 feet.
The New Croton Aqueduct conveys water from the City’s oldest collection of upstate reservoirs in Westchester and Putnam Counties, the Croton watershed, to the in-city drinking water distribution network. For more than 150 years the system provided unfiltered drinking water to the city, first through the Old Croton Aqueduct, which was built in 1842, and then the New Croton Aqueduct.
However, as population density increased around the Croton reservoirs, water quality in the system diminished and, in the late 1990s, DEP stopped using Croton Water for in-city distribution and began planning the construction of a filtration plant. With the system taken off-line and the Aqueduct drained of water, DEP conducted an extensive inspection of the tunnel and began plans for repairs.
A large concrete plug, 58 feet long and 12 feet wide, was built within the Aqueduct to direct the water through a new tunnel to the filtration plant. Once the water has gone through the filtration process, it travels through a separate tunnel back to the Aqueduct, downstream of the concrete plug, and towards the distribution network. The filtration and mechanical systems within the Croton Plant are currently being tested with water provided through the New Croton Aqueduct.
The completion of the Croton Filtration Plant and the reactivation of the Croton drinking water supply system will play important roles in the future as DEP repairs leaks in the Delaware Aqueduct, which currently supplies more than 50 percent of the city’s daily water needs.
Last year DEP began building two vertical shafts on opposite sides of the Hudson River in Orange and Ulster Counties. The shafts will be used by workers to build a bypass tunnel around a leaking portion of the Delaware Aqueduct, roughly 600 feet below ground level. Once that bypass tunnel has been built, DEP will temporarily shut down the Delaware Aqueduct in 2021 to make the necessary connections.
The Croton system will be critical in ensuring that DEP can continue to meet the city’s drinking water needs during the shutdown of the Delaware Aqueduct. It will also help to supplement the city’s water supply during future drought conditions.
DEP manages New York City’s water supply, providing more than one billion gallons of water each day to more than nine million residents, including more than eight million in New York City.
The water is delivered from a watershed that extends more than 125 miles from the city, comprising 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes. Approximately 7,000 miles of water mains, tunnels and aqueducts bring water to homes and businesses throughout the five boroughs.
And for all you New York City water system fanatics, here are some details on the actual work on the aqueduct:
Rehabilitation work included re-grouting the brick lining of the tunnel, upgrading 34 shaft site connections that allow crews to access the tunnel from ground level, and repairing valves and pumps that allow certain Westchester communities to pull water from the Aqueduct.
Five historic gatehouses located at ground level along the route of the Aqueduct were also restored.
Due to a limited number of access points, and restrictions on the size of the equipment that would fit through them, much of the machinery was taken apart and lowered by crane though the shafts hundreds of feet down to the Aqueduct, where it was reassembled.
The inspection of the Aqueduct began in 1996 and included the use of ultrasonic stress waves, ground penetrating radar, and diamond core test drilling to determine the permeability and strength of the tunnel lining and surrounding bedrock. A remotely operated vehicle inspected the portion of the tunnel that runs under the Harlem River, which was not dewatered.
Overall, the Aqueduct was found to be in good condition, with some areas requiring sediment removal, the repair of cracks in the tunnel lining, and brick and mortar repointing and replacement.
Rehabilitation work commenced in 2004 and was completed in 2013. The interior of the Aqueduct was power washed and where investigations showed that a void may be present behind the tunnel lining, a series of grouting injections was made to ensure the stability of the tunnel.
The lining of the tunnel is made up of more than 163 million bricks and portions were repointed and secured with new grouting to reduce friction in the tunnel and keep groundwater from seeping in. Additionally, a new 10-foot diameter shaft cap was installed at the Aqueduct’s terminus in upper Manhattan.
Work also included the upgrade of existing connections to the Aqueduct, including shafts and pumps, for the Villages of Briarcliff Manor, Tarrytown, and Sleepy Hollow. The New Croton Aqueduct serves as a backup water supply for these villages, which primarily rely on the Catskill Aqueduct.
In addition, the towns of New Castle, Ossining, and Pelham, the villages of Pleasantville, Ossining, Irvington, Ardsley, Bronxville, Dobbs Ferry, Hastings-on-Hudson, Pelham Manor, Pelham, Tuckahoe, and the City of New Rochelle also have connections that allow them to use water provided through the New Croton Aqueduct.