In many sections of southeast Queens, rain fills the streets like plugged bathtubs. Basements flood, cars are damaged, furniture is destroyed and residents are marooned inside their homes.
The fundamental problem is that commercial and residential development outpaced the build-out of the city’s storm sewer system. The ultimate solution is DEP’s ongoing $6 billion effort to extend storm sewers in the area, supplemented by innovations such as “bluebelts,” natural drainage corridors like ponds, wetlands, or streams that filter storm water before it is released into area waterways.
But as real progress continues on that score — on June 16, DEP and the community group Empowered Queens United in Action and Leadership (EQUAL) announced a $1 million project to install storm sewers along a three-block stretch of St. Albans — several local pols are insisting that DEP address the problem of rising water tables in the area by putting the old wells back on line.
Millions of gallons a day
Prior to 1996, the old Jamaica Water Supply Co. supplied water to southeast Queens and pumped millions of gallons of water every day out of the company’s 68 wells.
After the city took over operations in 1996, that pumping ended. Given the high cost associated with operating the wells and making the water safe to drink, the city connected southeast Queens to the same upstate reservoir system that serves the rest of the city.
As a result of the wells not being pumped, ground water tables in the area have risen 30 feet, according to Assemblyman William Scarborough, City Councilman Donovan Richards, who now chairs the council’s environmental protection committee, and others.
Although he is pleased overall with the steps the new administration and the DEP have taken to address the flooding issue, Richards says DEP’s timetable to start pumping the wells in 2021 is “unacceptable.” As plans stand, the DEP intends to operate the wells for an 8- to 10-month period starting that year while a bypass tunnel is installed as part of the $1 billion fix to the Delaware Aqueduct, the tunnel that brings in half of the city’s drinking water from upstate reservoirs.
DEP: Other fixes will work
Contrary to the local elected officials, the DEP does not view reopening the wells as part of the strategy to mitigate flooding. “The groundwater levels in SE Queens have historically risen and fallen over the years, regardless of whether the wells in SE Queens have been active,” a DEP spokesman says.
In the meantime, he says, DEP will continue to employ a number of strategies to control flooding, including the installation of “reverse seepage basins,” which channel water away from the surface in areas where ground water levels are higher than storm sewer pipes. Three of these seepage basins were installed in 2012.
At an assembly in May with 200 members of EQUAL, DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd reported the first seepage basin tested “removed $500,000 gallons (of water) per day.”
Richards, who in his role as DEP council chair meets with Lloyd once a month, maintains that pumping the wells cannot be overlooked. And he’s identified a pot of money to get the process moving.
After a long-running court dispute, the city recently received $105 million from ExxonMobil for polluting the city’s ground water supply. This is money that should be spent in southeast Queens since that’s where the pollution largely took place, Richards says.
Given the competition for scare city dollars, Richards anticipates opposition. “This is a battle I’m going to have,” he says.
DEP has spent more than $383 million on storm sewers in southeast Queens over the past 10 years and has announced plans to spend a comparable amount over the next decade.
Lloyd, now in her second stint as DEP commissioner, told The New York Times several years ago, the city is essentially “playing catch-up” in this part of town, adding that one-quarter to one-third of all the money the city was spending on storm sewers repairs and construction was being spent in Queens.
Geysers in the basement
The problem in southeast Queens has existed for several decades, causing untold billions in property damage and losses in property values. So it was music to the ears of residents along 119th Avenue in St. Albans last month when they heard a backhoe chipping away at pavement.
The $1 million project to install new storm sewers on 119th Avenue between 192nd and 195th streets is scheduled to be completed by the fall.
“While Noah’s flood lasted for 40 days, our flooding has been going on for more than 40 years,” Keisha Phillips-Kong, a 119th Avenue resident and leader of EQUAL, said at the June 16 press conference.
These storm drains will be connected to 18 mostly-new catch basins, the grate-covered receptacles that steer rainwater to either storm sewers or local waterways. This system will guide the rainwater to an existing storm sewer at 192nd Street, officials said.
Before the work began on her block, 119th Avenue resident Cheryl Towner never thought seriously about fixing her basement. Towner recalls an episode a few years ago when the flooding in her street was so forceful, water shot out the toilet and sink in her basement “like a geyser.”
“I didn’t know which way to turn,” says Towner, who shares the single-family house with her mother and sister.
Towner, who has lived in her home 35 years, says her basement is a moldy mess due to the frequent floods. But making repairs “would have been useless,” she says.
Towner confesses she grew accustomed to being battered by storm waters. “It’s distressing, but I almost got used to it,” she says. “You learn to adapt … You dread the forecast when you hear it’s going to rain.”
Several projects completed
The new storm drains are just part of the new infrastructure. A just-completed $175 million “Bluebelt” project in Springfield Gardens includes nine miles of storm sewers and eight miles of sanitary sewers.
The DEP has also begun an $18 million project to bring high level storm sewers to the Twin Ponds neighborhood of southeast Queens and plans a $26 million upgrade for the Brookville Boulevard area; and a $5 million project to install an additional sewer line under 183rd Street and Jamaica Avenue.
In a release, the department notes that storm sewer upgrades were also recently completed on 113th Avenue near 156th Street and 111th Avenue near 158th Street.
In 2011, DEP finished a $62.8 million reconstruction project at 99th Avenue and 110th Avenue in Jamaica and St. Albans that included the installation of three miles of new storm sewers, two miles of sanitary sewers, and 287 catch basins.
Richards believes the de Blasio administration is more concerned with the problems facing southeast Queens than the previous administration, pointing to $426 million allocated in the new city budget for infrastructure projects in the area.
“Commissioner Lloyd and the DEP have made an important downpayment on fixing the flooding problem in southeast Queens,” adds Phillips-Kong of EQUAL. “But it’s a multi-year payment plan and there's no room to fall behind.”
Not all the solutions to the flooding problem need to be high-tech, complicated or costly.
E. Thomas Oliver, a deacon at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church and a leader of EQUAL, says that when he purchased his home on 141st Avenue in Laurelton in 1971, little did he know he was “buying waterfront property.”
But after storm waters destroyed two of his cars and he spent $4,000 to install a sump pump in his basement—he recalls once seeing a neighbor paddle down the street in a canoe—he was convinced the coastline had somehow encroached upon Laurelton.
Shortly after EQUAL began to focus on the flooding issue, the organization convinced former DEP commissioner Carter Strickland to get the debris cleared from area catch basins. One of the photos the group presented to city officials showed grass shooting up through the grate of a catch basin at Guy R. Brewer Boulevard and Phroane Avenue.
Strickland cooperated and the result was 1,500 tons of trash and other material cleared from the catch basins.
Oliver says his home hasn’t sustained a serious flood since.