Waterways May Brighten Through Stormwater Bill

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The Bloomberg administration must present a plan by this autumn to reduce sewage overflows into the city’s waterways, according to a law passed by City Council last week.

Approved 48-0 on Wednesday, the bill sponsored by Council Environmental Protection Committee Chairman James Gennaro, a Queens Democrat, builds on promises to address the sewage problem that the administration made last year in submissions to state regulators, as well as in Mayor Bloomberg’s environmental blueprint, PlaNYC. A Bloomberg spokesman says the mayor will sign the bill.

As in several other U.S. cities, many areas of New York City are served by a combined sewer system where the pipes leading to sewage treatment plants combine water from sinks, tubs and toilets with rainwater from the street. A quick rush of water—sometimes as little as one-tenth of an inch of rain—can overwhelm the system, forcing excess water into hundreds of outflow pipes that dump into the city’s rivers, bays, creeks and canals. In a typical year, some 27 billion gallons of this untreated wastewater—containing everything from chemicals washed off the streets to fecal bacteria—flows into the waterways. The total was closer to 35 billion gallons in 2006, a wet year. These overflows are a major reason why swimming, fishing and even boating are restricted or prohibited in much of the city.

Among its many goals, PlaNYC dedicated the city to reducing the overflows. But as City Limits Investigates reported last summer, PlaNYC set fairly modest targets, incorporated little public input and did not embrace new technologies that other major cities have employed to reduce the amount of water flushed into sewers in the first place.

Gennaro’s bill requires the administration to draft a comprehensive sustainable stormwater management plan, with a draft due on Oct. 1. A public comment period follows, with a final plan required by Dec. 1. After that, the city must make regular progress reports. The final plan must include specific goals for reducing overflows and improving the health of waterways, list technologies and practices to be used to reach those goals, and identify areas of the city where different methods can be used, city offices responsible for implementing them and budget resources to fund the work.

“It’s one thing to talk about stormwater in the abstract,” Gennaro said Friday. “It’s another to legally commit the city to preparing a draft, taking public comment, incorporating that comment in a final report and then implementing the plan.”

With their impervious surfaces of asphalt and concrete, cities do a poor job of absorbing water. That means cities waste a vital resource, incur expensive sewage treatment and suffer sewage overflows. The Gennaro measure calls for the city to study ways to retain more water on both public and private property, including the use of “bluebelts, green roofs, bioretention, tree cover and tree pit design, permeable pavement, wetland preservation and creation, green streets, green walls, blue roofs, rain barrels, cisterns, downspout disconnections, subgrade storage chambers, and grey-water reuse”—all methods for trapping more water before it reaches the sewer system. The measure also mandates a system for informing the public about sewage overflows via radio, 311 or the Internet, so that boaters and fishers can know what’s in the water they’re touching.

Gennaro’s bill doesn’t require a specific amount of overflow reduction or a target for water quality improvement, and lacks any mechanism for City Council to amend or reject whatever plan the Bloomberg administration ultimately proposes.

But environmentalists hailed the bill’s passage as a victory because it imposes a strict timeline, requires regular reporting, forces the city to look closely at “green infrastructure” and focuses not just on voluntary incentives but also hard, legal requirements for stormwater management. “If we want to get water quality improved, we’ve got to make some really hard decisions,” says Gennaro. “We can’t wish it into existence.”

Backers also hail the process that produced the bill. “It’s a real victory for the grassroots groups that have been working for decades for water quality in New York City,” says Rob Crauderueff, the sustainable alternatives coordinator at Sustainable South Bronx, one of the organizations in the S.W.I.M. (Storm Water Infrastructure Matters) Coalition that has pushed for higher water quality standards. “This is a really significant step forward for how the city can work with community groups to green the city,” he adds. “It’s an important framework.”

– Jarrett Murphy