New York Confronts Polluted Past in its Waterways

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The Empire Dragon Boat Racing Team on Flushing Bay in May. The team has become an advocate for cleaning up that and other waterways.

Adi Talwar

The Empire Dragon Boat Racing Team on Flushing Bay in May. The team has become an advocate for cleaning up that and other waterways.

They moved like a creature with 20 arms across choppy Flushing Bay. Wrists and hands and shoulders and waists snapped toward the water and back in unison, the paddle blades plunging deep to deliver taut tugs forward. Neither the sound of cars on the Grand Central Parkway nor the sight of planes en route to La Guardia distracted the members of the Empire Dragon Boat Racing team. Their concentration was perfect, until one paddler struck the water awkwardly and sprayed the woman behind her with a flash of chilly water. “Ugh,” said the splashed. “Oh! Sorry!” the offending paddler quickly shouted over her shoulder. “Phht,” replied the victim. “It’s okay.”

The Empire team had 40 women out on the water on that cold Saturday in May. They were practicing for their first meet of the season. Their ages ranged from 30s to 70s, but all were cancer survivors, a common thread in the increasingly popular dragon-boat movement. They had gathered at 8 a.m. at the World’s Fair Marina near CitiField to weigh in and do some stretches. Then they clambered two to a seat into two long, flat-bottomed boats and paddled into open water.

On their way out they passed a large, rectangular concrete tunnel jutting out of the shoreline. It’s known as a CSO—or combined sewer overflow—outfall. In about half of New York City the sewer system combines wastewater from toilets and drains and rainwater into the same pipe, and treats it all at sewage plants. Those plants have a limit to their capacity. If it rains hard or heavy, the system avoids sewage backups by flushing the volume it can’t handle into the city’s waterways. And so New York City releases some 27 billion gallons of untreated wastewater each year into places like Flushing Bay.

“It’s pretty gross. There’s usually stuff floating on top of it. Some is identifiable trash that you’d rather see in a bathroom waste bin,” says paddler Karen Craddock. “It often smells.”

All this week, a joint City Limits-WNYC reporting partnership will broadcast and publish stories about New York City's incredible water system and the challenges it faces.

All this week, a joint City Limits-WNYC reporting partnership will broadcast and publish stories about New York City's incredible water system and the challenges it faces.

After years of pressure from federal and state regulators, New York City is finally taking a comprehensive look at how to reduce combined sewer overflows, submitting for state approval 11 separate clean-up plans for different waterways affected by CSOs. Meanwhile, the state is considering changing the standards for how clean the city’s waterways must be to comply the federal Clean Water Act. And in the background are negotiations between the city and state over how to deal not with sewage overflows, but of stormwater itself, which can pollute waterways even when its not mixed with sewage.

Taken together, it means the city is confronting a choice about its waterways. We ignored or mistreated them for decades. They are now a huge part of the lives of many New Yorkers—the fishermen, paddlers, kayakers, swimmers and waterfront developers among us. Of all the challenges facing the city’s awe-inspiring water system, from the watershed to the Delaware Aqueduct and Croton filtration plant to homes and businesses, the most contentious might be playing out now at Flushing Bay, the Bronx River and other waterways.

The issues there are complex, but the question is simple: Are we willing to pay the price to get our water as clean as it can be?

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The Empire team members joke about “the Flushing Bay diet,” which occurs when you accidentally drink a little too much of the bay and get diarrhea. Coach Akila Simon says she once had a bad experience with mere skin contact. “My skin was falling off. I kid you not. Skin was just peeling off, peeling off. I had gotten an infection from that water and it was really bad.”

CSOs cause problems because they introduce fecal bacteria into the water that can make people sick and fish unhealthy to eat. A 2004 EPA report to Congress on CSOs listed eight nasty bacteria commonly found in sewage, like E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Parasites and viruses are also in the mix. At the same time, as organic material in the waste breaks down it eats up the dissolved oxygen that aquatic creatures need to survive, killing fish or driving them out of a waterway. Those impacts mean CSOs fly in the face of the Clean Water Act, which sets the goal of making all the nation’s waters fishable and swimmable.

New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has spent $2.1 billion in the past 10 years on CSO control, much of it on four huge retention tanks that hold excess water during rainstorms and send it to the sewage plants later on. DEP says its work over the last decade has cut discharges by some 5 billion gallons. Overall, the city’s come a long way since 1980, when only about 30 percent of CSO discharges were captured. Now, about 72 percent are.

“But the scale of the prob here in New York is so vast, such a large system with on the order of 27 billion gallons a year of overflow that progress has been slow—slower than one would hope,” says Larry Levine, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

WNYC on the debate over clean water in New York

New York is one of 772 municipalities with CSOs. Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta and St. Louis are among the other major urban areas with combined sewers, and each is somewhere along the way toward addressing the problem. San Francisco completed its federally required sewage improvements in 1997. Boston is supposed to finish up its to-do list this year. According to a survey by the Boston water authority, some other cities aren’t due to wrap up their CSO clean-up work until 2030 or beyond. New York is among them.

To put it simply, this is a problem that New York City was, for many years, in no hurry to solve. The city has been under regulatory pressure to clean up its CSOs since 1992, when the city and state entered into a consent order committing New York to deadlines and reductions. The city blew some of its deadlines—and some of the regulations evolved—so the the consent order was revised in 2005, changed again in 2008, updated in 2009 and altered once more in 2012.

It’s under that 2012 order that DEP is working on the 11 plans, known as “long-term control plans” or LTCPs on the Bronx River, Hutchinson River and Westchester Creek in the Bronx; Gowanus Canal and Coney Island in Brooklyn; Alley Creek, Flushing Creek, Flushing Bay and Jamaica Bay in Queens; Newtown Creek on the Brooklyn-Queens border, and a citywide plan that covers the East River and open waters. Four plans have been submitted so far. The Bronx River and Gowanus Canal ones are due this month. The rest are scheduled to roll out over the next two years.

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So far, neither environmental advocates nor the state have been terribly impressed with what DEP has proposed. The planning process can be very technical, revolving around concepts like recovery time and rainfall modeling, just plain unappetizing, like the question of whether DEP’s plans for chlorine disinfection will take care of what one environmental advocate vividly describes as “chunks of poop” that might float out. The debate, however, is about something more profound: Whether the city is actually, finally moving to comply with federal law on CSOs.

That’s the theme of the regulatory fight over Alley Creek, which runs from inside Alley Pond Park in far eastern Queens, passes under Northern Boulevard and flows out into Little Neck Bay. Some 134 million gallons of CSO water flow there every year, and that’s despite the $130 million, 5-million-gallon retention tank that was activated there in 2011 to capture overflow. Like all waterbodies in the state, Alley Creek has an official use designation from the state. It’s Class I, meaning it is “best suited” for secondary contact like boating and fishing.

Different use designations come with different standards that limit the amount of fecal bacteria and set a minimum for the level of dissolved oxygen in the waterway. DEP says Alley Creek already meets Class I standards, but as part of the long-term planning process it is supposed to look at whether the waterway could be made clean enough for people to swim in.

The Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant. CSOs occur when wet weather gets to be too much for this and the other 13 city sewage plants to handle.

Jarrett Murphy

The Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant. CSOs occur when wet weather gets to be too much for this and the other 13 city sewage plants to handle.

DEP’s conclusion was that it can’t be. “It is not feasible for the waterbody to meet the water quality criteria associated with the next higher classification,” the agency said in its submission to the state. Even if CSOs were controlled 100 percent, DEP argued, the water couldn’t be made safe for swimming because of other sources of pollution. Besides, “combinations of natural and manmade features” make it a bad place for swimming anyway. With that in mind the city sized up 10 different options for how to reduce sewer overflows into Alley Creek and chose a plan to disinfect with chlorine the water released from the retention tank. At $11.3 million, it was the cheapest option on the menu.

The state saw a cop out. “The city’s interpretation of the LTCP Goal Statement and CSO Control Policy is incorrect,” one of the DEC’s responses read. The goal of the Clean Water Act, the state says, is that “wherever attainable” water must be made “fishable/swimmable.” If the city can’t meet that goal, it still has to aim for the highest level of cleanliness it can possibly reach.

So DEP went to court, arguing that it had done its duty and that the state ought to get off its back. The case continues. “DEP and DEC are in active discussions seeking a resolution to the dispute,” says DEP spokesman Chris Gilbride.

The city’s argument has long been that it needs more time. “We very much embrace the goal” of the Clean Water Act, said DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd at an event in April. “We very much worry about the pace of expenditures that are required to get there.”

When City Limits asked Gilbride if all New York City waterways should be swimmable, he wrote in response: “Our goal is to continue to make significant capital investments to improve [sewage plants], reduce CSOs and manage stormwater through cost effective solutions that will provide major benefits to adjacent waterfront communities and NYC residents. The necessary funding to achieve swimmable waters throughout NYC will have a considerable impact on the water rate so progress must be made in increments and gradually over time.”

Advocates recognize that the city is not going to reach swimmability overnight. But they do feel its time for the city to commit to a plan to get there. “We’ve been working towards that fishable/swimmable goal for 40 years so at some point you’ve got to say, ‘Enough is enough,'” says Sean Dixon, a staff attorney at Riverkeeper.

* * * * *

The next long-term control plan due to the state, covering the Bronx River, will be submitted later this month. In May DEP officials came to a community center in the Longwood section of the Bronx to map out what they’re thinking of proposing for that waterway.

“We’ve done a lot of work here to try to understand what’s coming out of these pipes both in terms of flow and in term of concentration,” said DEP assistant commissioner Jim Mueller as he walked through slides showing the location of CSOs on the river and presenting data on how the waterway measures up to standards for dissolved oxygen and fecal bacteria.

Below Tremont Avenue the Bronx River is tidal—in other words, it’s salt water—and that’s the section affected by CSOs. It’s also affected by the mighty East River, which flushes the bottom of the river out, improving water quality. Still, the river’s saline section right now falls short of most Class I standards. To improve on that, Mueller said, DEP is exploring a range of options, each with a price-tag.

Short of ripping up the sewer system and starting over, the city can reduce CSOs via green infrastructure or grey infrastructure. Green infrastructure involves green roofs, blue roofs, porous pavement and—DEP’s favorite choice—bioswales, which are specially designed tree pits whose plants and design help it absorb or at least delay water. The idea is to keep as much water out of the sewage system as we can at least until the rain is over and the sewage plants can handle it. GI isn’t costless—it still takes money to build the stuff—but it’s cheaper than most grey options, easier to maintain and prettier to live near.

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Under its deal with state regulators, the city is supposed to capture 1 inch of stormwater on 10 percent of the impervious surface in the areas that drain to CSOs. In the Bronx River CSO zone, DEP is targeting 14 percent. That sounds like a tiny number, but DEP isn’t confident it can even reach that.

“I would love to believe that,” said DEP deputy commissioner Angela Licata when asked at the Bronx event if the city could hit a higher number for stormwater capture. “I think we hold that hope for getting to those levels of capture through green. But the reality is to find the locations, to find the space, I think we’re coming to some constraints. I think 14 percent is a very hopeful number.”

Grey infrastructure, on the other hand, can involve huge tanks that hold the overflow water until plants can handle it, disinfection stations that kill the nasty stuff in the water that’s overflowing, or even rerouting pipes so overflow dumps into bigger water bodies where it can be diluted faster. All these are on the menu of choices DEP is weighing for the Bronx River, with costs ranging from $41 million to $701 million.

“We’re not hear to say we’re not going to reinvest in the Bronx River,” Mueller said. We just want to do it smartly to try to get a bang for the buck.”

* * * * *

The whole conversation about water quality in New York is oddly disjointed. The long-term control plans will collectively comprise the city’s approach to a problem it has been under consent order to fix since the first Bush administration, but they are being contemplated one by one. And since they are intended to deal only with CSOs, those plans don’t really consider the health of the whole waterway. The entire section of the Bronx River above Tremont Avenue isn’t really part of the DEP’s long-term control plan, because there are no CSOs there.

Fact is, CSOs aren’t the only player in Bronx River pollution. According to the data Mueller presented, three quarters of the “wet weather loading” the river gets is not from CSOs but from direct drainage—runoff from Shoelace Park into the drink, for instance—and stormwater drains.

Westchester County runoff also affects the Bronx River. That’s a unique situation, as is the fact that the Bronx River is the only tributary in the city with some fresh water in it. Stormwater, however, is a common problem in waterways around town. If CSOs have dominated the water quality conversation for the past 20 years, stormwater is the topic water people will obsess over next. Totally separate from the CSO discussion, the city and state are now negotiating a permit over DEP’s control of stormwater from the more modern “separate sewer system” that serves the parts of the city not covered by combined sewers. The city’s water finance authority is warning bond investors that it has no idea what the final bill on those fixes will be.

Meanwhile, even as DEP prepares plans for how to get city waterways to meet current water quality standards, those standards might be changing. The state is considering requiring that all city waterbodies aim to be open to primary contact, which DEC notes “is the goal of the federal Clean Water Act.”

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“There’s really a dispute right now between the city and the state over what the goal should be for the whole process,” Levine says. “Now the time has come to resolve these questions. They can’t be put off any longer.”

DEP says the cost of achieving that could be as high as $84 billion. And its argument is that there are waterways that New Yorkers really can’t swim in regardless of how clean the water is—perhaps because there’s no safe way in or out of the water, or there’s a lot of heavy commercial boat traffic.

Advocates, however, believe there are ways to improve water quality that aren’t as costly as multibillion-dollar retention tanks or disinfection stations. Dixon believes that they city could do more to reduce illegal sewer connections. Levine says that since the city is running out of public spaces to locate green infrastructure, it needs to compel more private property owners to join in. (The city does require properties undergoing construction in some parts of the city to detain most of their stormwater, but existing properties escape those rules. The de Blasio administration says it “is considering a program to incentivize retrofits on existing properties as well as considering the benefits of increased stormwater management on properties within areas served by separate sewers.”)

Many Bronx River advocates also want to see more public education around conservation—telling New Yorkers to let it mellow if it’s yellow, at least when it’s raining out.

There’s little question, though, that getting places like the Bronx River as clean as federal law requires will cost big money. That money will ultimately come from consumers in a city already worried that it’s pricing out the working class. This is how the argument over river clean-up and the debate over water rates come together: To do the first, we have to fix the former. “We’re interested in ensuring that there is an equitable allocation of that added burden of costs,” says Jaime Stein, a Pratt Institute professor and S.W.I.M. member.

* * * * *

The Bronx River can sometimes feel like a neglected back lot to the apartment buildings that abut it, a mere siding to the Bronx River Parkway. That’s how most city waterways were treated in the 20th Century—as something you looked away from.

“A lot of the problems that we see with cleaning up urban waterways is that when you have eyes on the water, it gets cleaned up a lot quicker,” says Dixon. “What we’re trying to do is both bring people back to the river and also bring the rivers back to the people.” And that’s what’s happening. People kayak the Gowanus and swim in the Bronx river. They fish lots of places. And, right now, they might get sick doing so.

In a city that now struggles with the success from cleaning up the subways and reducing crime, it seems odd to Linda Cox that New York—an archipelago connected to the mighty Hudson and majestic Long Island Sound—wouldn’t want to maximize its water assets. “Don’t we want these water resources to be a primary place for us to really enjoy nature and enjoy fun and use?” says Cox, the head of the Bronx River Alliance. “In the long run this would be crazy for us not to be aiming for that for our lives as New Yorkers?”

Some advocates worry that despite the importance of the questions about our waterways, the discussion about what to do with them has been confined to a small group of people—DEP scientists and officials, water advocates and organized users like the dragonboat team. “There needs to be a much more robust public outreach done by the city,” says Stein. Given the technical information being presented by the city, and the real knowledge communities have about their waterways and how they’re used, the LTCP plan—ironically given the years of city delay on CSOs—seems rushed. “They dragged their feet on doing it and so now the timeframe is compressed. It’s really hard for a city agency to do community engagement on this timeline.”

That day in May, the Empire Dragon Boat Team did a 2,000 meter warm-up, then practiced the crucial first five strokes that make up a good start before chugging out two, 200-meter sprints. The last drill was a grueling 500-meter sprint. The boat lurched forward with each stoke, plowing through the water. By the final stretch, some of the paddlers were clearly struggling to keep up, groaning with exertion. “Come on ladies!” beckoned Coach James Lozada. “Who wants it more?”

One of the paddlers often out on Flushing Bay is Hillary Exter, a 60-year-old whose team nickname is Scout. “There is something very therapeutic about being near water, so that for me is really wonderful. Feeling the breeze,seeing the seagulls, occasionally seeing a heron,” she said, “feeling like you can continue to get yourself in getter shape and continue to get the water in better shape. The symbolism of both is very important to me.”

City Limits coverage of the Bronx is supported by the New York Community Trust.

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