PlaNYC: Waterways

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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!