PlaNYC: Waterways

New York City’s suc­cess is largely based on the fact that it has abun­dant access to water.  How­ever, as the city has grown, the water qual­ity has pro­gres­sively declined.  (Those inter­ested may want to check out a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, The Great­est Grid: The Mas­ter Plan of Man­hat­tan 1811–2011.  The exhibit under­lines the dras­tic changes in the land­scape of the island and fur­ther illus­trates our need to remain com­mit­ted to nat­ural preser­va­tion of the city.)


Mod­ern New York City has an intri­cate water­way sys­tem.  There are 14 waste­water treat­ment plants that treat the 1.1 bil­lion gal­lons of waste that New York­ers gen­er­ate every day—in dry weather. Since 2002, over $6 bil­lion has been invested into improv­ing water qual­ity, and, in 2011, New York made a plan the goals and stan­dards out­lined in the Clean Water Act.  As a result, the New York Har­bor water is cleaner than it has been in the last cen­tury, and will con­tinue to improve.


Despite these sig­nif­i­cant mile­stones, there is much work to be done, and the 15 Ini­tia­tives in PlaNYC hope to accom­plish them.  The Ini­tia­tives focus on low­er­ing chem­i­cals in water released from the water treat­ment plants for health­ier water­ways, improv­ing plant capac­ity for stormwa­ter or lim­it­ing amount of stormwa­ter flows.  It also focuses on reduc­ing con­t­a­m­i­nated sed­i­ments from pol­lu­tion and re-establishing a nat­ural, aquatic ecosystem.


Ini­tia­tive 1: Upgrade waste­water treat­ment plants to achieve sec­ondary treat­ment standards

In the last 40 years, the City has greatly improved waste­water treat­ment plant capac­ity, and removes more pathogens from the treat­ment process than ever.  But many chem­i­cals are still released with the water.  There is a $5 bil­lion upgrade to the New­ton Creek Waste­water Treat­ment Plant that will increase capac­ity to serve more than 1 mil­lion res­i­dents within a 15,000-acre drainage area.  New­ton Creek is the largest plant in New York, and will meet the sec­ondary treat­ment stan­dards of the Clean Water Act.


Ini­tia­tive 2: Upgrade treat­ment plants to reduce nitro­gen discharges

One of the chem­i­cals released with treated water is nitro­gen.  While safe for humans, it hurts coals ecosys­tems.  Bow­ery Bay, Tall­man Island, and Wards Island waste­water treat­ment plants will receive $770 mil­lion worth of upgrades to reduce nitro­gen dis­charges by more than 50%.  Work­ing together with the State Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion and other envi­ron­men­tal groups, over $100 mil­lion will be ded­i­cated to install new nitro­gen con­trol tech­nolo­gies.  These changes will greatly improve the aquatic ecosys­tem of New York.


Ini­tia­tive 3: Com­plete cost-effective grey infra­struc­ture projects to reduce CSOs and improve water quality.

Com­bined Sewage Over­flow (CSO) is the excess sewage that is beyond plant capac­ity from rain and other pre­cip­i­ta­tion.  It accounts for the most pol­lu­tion that enters our waters, so if we can limit CSO, our waters will be cleaner and health­ier. So, over the net 20 years, the City is invest­ing $2.9 bil­lion in grey infra­struc­ture (con­ven­tional piped drainage and other water treat­ment sys­tems; think pipes are grey!) to reduce untreated water from enter­ing our water­ways. For exam­ple, in some areas, large deten­tion facil­i­ties to hold CSOs until the plant can process the water will be built.  In the past cou­ple of years, deten­tion facil­i­ties have been built in Spring Creek, Flush­ing Bay, Paere­gat Basin, and Alley Creek. The capac­ity at Avenue V Pump­ing Sta­tion in Brook­lyn and the Gowanus Canal Pump­ing sta­tion will increase.  All together, this will reduce CSOs by more than 8.2 bil­lion gal­lons a year.




Ini­tia­tive 4: Expand the sewer network

Addi­tional miles of storm sew­ers will also add to the capac­ity of the sys­tem.  Almost $55 mil­lion has been spent on the Rock­away Penin­sula for sewage con­struc­tion since 2002, which has improved qual­ity and reduced flood­ing.  The City will also invest in High Level Storm Sew­ers (HLSS) to keep water out of the com­bined sewer sys­tem.  This sep­a­rates the flows by cap­tur­ing rain­fall and divert­ing it directly to our water­ways, instead of com­bin­ing it with sewage.  HLSS are com­ing soon to Throgs Neck in the Bronx, the Gowanus neigh­bor­hood in Brook­lyn, and the Lau­rel­ton Neigh­bor­hood of Queens.


Ini­tia­tive 5: Opti­mize the exist­ing sewer system.

Ensur­ing that the sewer sys­tem is work­ing per­fectly is the most cost-effective way to reduce CSOs.  Sim­ple repairs to catch basins, which con­trol flood­ing from heavy rains, tide gates, which cover CSO dis­charge points, and inter­cep­tor sew­ers, which con­nect the sys­tem to the treat­ment plants, will opti­mize the sys­tem and make sure money is being spent well.


Ini­tia­tive 6: Expand the Blue­belt program

We’ve talked about Grey Infra­struc­ture, now on to Green Infra­struc­ture.  Green infra­struc­ture improves water qual­ity by using veg­e­ta­tion to retain stormwa­ter.  Since the early 1990s, NYC has relied on wet­lands and other nat­ural areas in the Blue­belt sys­tem in Staten Island to absorb stormwa­ter, which elim­i­nates the need for costly sewage sys­tems.  These nat­ural sys­tems save tax­payer money, raise prop­erty val­ues, and clean our city.  The Blue­belt sys­tem is a great model the City hopes to imple­ment wher­ever possible.


Ini­tia­tive 7: Build pub­lic green infra­struc­ture projects

The Sus­tain­able Stormwa­ter Man­age­ment Plan was estab­lished in 2008 to ana­lyze the costs, ben­e­fits, and fea­si­bil­ity of green infra­struc­ture projects in dense, urban envi­ron­ments.  Thirty pilot projects were imple­mented to test source con­trol tech­nolo­gies in NYC.  Swales and stormwater-capturing tree pits, for exam­ple, allow water to pool under­wa­ter, instead of in our sewage sys­tem.  They also add plants and green­ery to our streets and side­walks. Per­me­able pave­ment is a new devel­op­ment that lets water seep under­ground, instead of siphon­ing it all to our drains. By 2013, these pilots will be com­pleted, and projects can begin based on the stud­ies.  The 2010 Green Infra­struc­ture Plan also been imme­di­ately imple­mented, which launches a source con­trol pro­gram in New York.  The City is work­ing with the State to mod­ify reg­u­la­tions so the Green Infra­struc­ture Plan can pro­ceed as swiftly as pos­si­ble.  Over­all, the city is pre­pared to spend $1.5 bil­lion on green infra­struc­ture in the next 20 years.  Even­tu­ally, this will save new York­ers more than $2 bil­lion, were the city use only grey infrastructure.


Ini­tia­tive 8: Engage and enlist com­mu­ni­ties in sus­tain­able stormwa­ter management

Green infra­struc­ture is pub­lic and vis­i­ble, and the res­i­dents of the area should have input as to the changes in their neigh­bor­hood.  The City will work with non­prof­its and neigh­bor­hood agen­cies to best deter­mine how to imple­ment green infra­struc­ture.  For exam­ple, in 2009, the City awarded $2.6 mil­lion to five dif­fer­ent projects through the Flush­ing and Gowanus Freen Infra­struc­ture Grant Ini­tia­tive. This funded a green roof, veg­e­ta­tion swales, bio-retention basins, and treat­ment wet­lands for the area.  The City has also formed a Green Infra­struc­ture Cit­i­zens Group, which is open to the pub­lic and made up of civic orga­ni­za­tions, envi­ron­men­tal groups, devel­op­ers and design pro­fes­sions.  It meets reg­u­larly to insure their input fac­tors into planning.


Ini­tia­tive 9:  Mod­ify codes to increase the cap­ture of stormwater

Major changes from PlaNYC 2007 are zon­ing amend­ments: now, com­mer­cial park­ing lots are required to include perime­ter and inte­rior green infra­struc­ture; build­ings in lower den­sity dis­tricts can­not pave their yards; and new city­wide devel­op­ments must plant trees and pro­vide plant­ing strips along side­walks. With these minor reg­u­la­tions, it is esti­mated than $900 mil­lion of green infra­struc­ture will be build over the next 20 years. Another avenue to explore are blue roofs.  Blue roofs are rooftop deten­tion sys­tems where a device stops water from drain­ing until the storm surge passes.  To make blue roofs more effec­tive, the City will address the incon­sis­tent rules cur­rently in place.  Blue roofs are one of the cheap­est ways to limit CSOs, and the City is com­mit­ted to imple­ment­ing a wide­spread blue roof program.


Ini­tia­tive 10: Pro­vide incen­tives for green infrastructure

While many rec­og­nize the ben­e­fits of green infra­struc­ture, some prop­erty own­ers lack the inven­tive or the means to install sus­tain­able source con­trols.  The City will eval­u­ate the oppor­tu­nity for a sep­a­rate stormwa­ter rate and credit sys­tem that could charge landown­ers for their runoff, which would give them incen­tive to min­i­mize it.  Then, for exam­ple, they could receive reduced stormwa­ter fees for hav­ing green infra­struc­ture.  A pilot pro­gram is sched­uled to run until 2013.


Ini­tia­tive 11: Actively par­tic­i­pate in water­way cleanup efforts.

While CSOs are the largest source of water­way con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, some of the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion is caused by past indus­trial use.  The City is par­tic­u­larly focused on the Gowanus Canal and New­town Creek for cleanup. Address­ing stag­nant water and upgrad­ing the Gowanus Flush­ing Tun­nel will improve Gowanus, and New­town Creek will receive new equip­ment to increase oxy­gen lev­els in the water, which is safer for the ecosystem.


Ini­tia­tive 12: Enhance wet­lands pro­tec­tion.

Wet­lands are nat­ural swamps that retain water.  In the past, they have been filled and devel­oped, but they are very impor­tant in hold­ing stormwa­ter and lim­it­ing CSOs.  The Wet­lands Trans­fer Task Force was formed in 2005 to assess wet­lands prop­er­ties owned by the City.  They have released a report, New York City Wet­lands: Reg­u­la­tory Gaps and other Threats, that assessed the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of exist­ing wet­lands and iden­ti­fied addi­tional poli­cies to pro­tect them.  These reg­u­la­tions will be put into place to pre­serve New York Wet­lands.  Pro­tec­tion will also be expanded through the New York City Water­front Revi­tal­iza­tion Pro­gram (WRP), a sim­i­lar pol­icy program.


Ini­tia­tive 13: Restore and cre­ate wetlands

The City must go fur­ther than pro­tect­ing vul­ner­a­ble wet­lands, it must restore and cre­ate new wet­lands wher­ever pos­si­ble.  At Alley Pond Park in Queens, 16-acres of restora­tion has recently been com­pleted to revive the local ecosys­tem, and has improved water qual­ity.  The City has also col­lab­o­rated with state and fed­eral agen­cies and devel­oped the Com­pre­hen­sive Restora­tion Plan (CRP), a joint project of the Army Corps, the EPA, and the NYNJ Port Author­ity.  It broadly out­lines goals for wet­land and ecosys­tem restora­tion. The City has invested over $74 mil­lion to restore more than 175 acres of wet­lands since, 2002, and only plans to continue.


Ini­tia­tive 14: Improve Wet­lands mitigation

Mit­i­ga­tion is the prac­tice or restor­ing, enhanc­ing, or pro­tect­ing wet­land func­tions to off­set their loss.  Cur­rently in New York State, restora­tion is required at the site of a con­struc­tion or dis­tur­bance site, which is not very prac­ti­cal due to lack of space.  An Alter­na­tive is in-lieu fee mit­i­ga­tion, allow­ing wet­lands loss to be mit­i­gated by pay­ing a fee that will go towards a larger restora­tion project.  Mit­i­ga­tion bank­ing uses a sim­i­lar approach where large-scale wet­land restora­tion projects gen­er­ate cred­its that can com­pen­sate for other wet­land loss.


Ini­tia­tive 15: Improve habi­tat for aquatic species

New York Har­bor used to be filled with a lot of wildlife that helped fil­ter the water. A num­ber of pilot pro­grams have been launched to estab­lish fea­si­bil­ity of rein­tro­duc­ing oys­ters, eel­grass, and mus­sels back into the water­ways. The Oys­ter Restora­tion and Research Project has six small reefs through­out the har­bor and so far indi­cate that all planted oys­ters have grown.  The ques­tion still remains if they will repro­duce and estab­lish a sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion.  Eel­grass could serve as a habi­tat and shel­ter for fish and shell­fish.  It also sta­bi­lizes sed­i­ments, reduces ero­sion, and nat­u­rally removes nitro­gen.  The City has already sown 3,500 plant­i­ngs and will con­tinue to plant eel­grass in the Harbor.


In con­clu­sion, the City is com­mit­ted to green, sus­tain­able ways to improve the entire water sys­tem in New York.  Grey infra­struc­ture will con­tinue to be built and repaired, mak­ing the sewage sys­tem more effi­cient.  Green infra­struc­ture will be encour­aged across the entire scale of the city, from wet­land restora­tion to swales and trees on side­walks.  The City is also doing research to improve the ecosys­tem of the New York Har­bor, and install nat­ural water filters!