Water Pressure Part I: The Pipe Facing the challenge of New York's endless sewage spill

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On a sunny day, the shallow waters sparkle as sunlight filters through the trees lining either bank. It’s not unusual to see a heron or an otter as the stream twists underneath Gun Hill Road, nor is it unheard of to spot a beaver when the water gurgles through the New York Botanical Garden, under Fordham Road and into
the Bronx Zoo, where the wildlife gets more exotic. From the seat of a kayak or canoe, rolling on the gentle current that churns white over the smooth rocks, it’s easy to forget that you’re floating through a borough of 1.4 million people. But then you slip under Tremont Avenue, start to drift toward the Cross Bronx Expressway
and peer into the shadows of the yawning concrete pipe embedded in the left bank. If it’s hot enough, you might smell the big hole before and after you see it, and that would tip you off to what that pipe does on rainy days: spew a mixture of stormwater and raw sewage into the Bronx River.

The tube near Tremont, known as “outfall HP-007” is one of 494 such pipes that empty into the city’s waterways. They lurk under the feet of sightseers who stroll the East River walkways, hug the marina that separates Shea Stadium from Flushing Bay and empty into Gravesend Bay a few blocks east of the Verrazano’s Brooklyn base. In a normal year, these combined sewer overflow
(CSO) pipes can dump an estimated 25 billion gallons of toxin-laced stormwater runoff and 2 billion gallons of untreated sewage containing human feces, urine and other waste into New York City’s rivers, bays, creeks and canals. That’s enough to fill the Empire State Building 98 times or sink 779 Titanics—a sufficient amount to wreak havoc with underwater ecosystems and violate water quality standards. In an unusually rainy year, the total can swell higher: In 2006, some 35 billion gallons are estimated to have flowed down the pipes, and out into the waters around us.

The reason it happens is well known: The city’s sewage infrastructure, which combines the water running down street-level storm drains with what we flush down the toilet and spill down the sink, does not have the capacity to hold the additional volume of water when it rains intensely. As little as one-tenth of an inch of rain can cause an overflow. Put simply, rain gives New York City
diarrhea—and it has for decades.

When Mayor Bloomberg launched his sustainability initiative last fall, there was hope for a cure. “The water along our shoreline is cleaner than it has been in generations,” the mayor said in September 2006 as he announced the creation of the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS), “but we want it cleaner still, so that we can fish, swim, and enjoy the rivers that have always been the city’s most distinctive feature.” The mayor later announced a goal of opening 90 percent of New York’s tributaries to recreation. The city’s swimmers, boaters, fishers and others who simply prefer to gaze out over clean rather than contaminated water had reason to be excited. The can-do mayor who had taken control of the schools, managed the post 9-11 fiscal crisis and pushed crime to surprising new lows was on the march.

PlaNYC was to be his battle plan. Released in April, the 158-page PlaNYC report adopts many of the most progressive hallmarks of 21st-century green thinking: imposing congestion pricing, protecting open space, improving mass transit, reducing carbon emissions. The ambitious, glossy presentation includes a photo of two kayakers, laughing as they bounce on the waves with the city as their backdrop. Their smiles and raised paddles reflects the spirit of enthusiasm and hope that underlies the mayor’s entire 2030 plan—a full-spectrum attempt to place New York City and its mayor at the forefront of the global environmental movement.

But when it comes to water quality issues, PlaNYC stays pretty close to shore. It promises that over the next 23 years the city will capture 75 percent of its wet-weather sewage—only marginally better than the 72 percent it captures already, less ambitious than what other big cities with similar sewers have done and merely in line with legal requirements by which the city is already bound. And it turns out the goal of making 90 percent of the city’s tributaries open for use refers to achieving secondary and not primary contact: Boating, not swimming; look, but don’t touch. “The goals are super fuzzy,” says Kate Zidar, program director of Environmental Education at the Lower East Side Ecology Center. “90 percent open to recreation? Well, the Clean Water Act is more ambitious than that. State water quality standards are more detailed than that.” She adds: “What 10 percent
are we abandoning?”

Meanwhile, the city is cutting back on the construction of massive and costly water storage tanks, which are intended to reduce the overflow problem by storing excess water until the treatment plants can handle it. But the city’s Department of Environmental
Protection (DEP) is sending mixed signals on whether alternative technologies have a role to play in replacing the tanks. While there are hopeful signs in PlaNYC’s examination of green solutions to the sewage overflows, those passages are so limited and vague that the city’s water advocacy community is worried New York might never reach the mayor’s goal. A city official who has carefully reviewed PlaNYC and generally supports it calls the meaninglessness of the water quality goal City Hall’s “dirty little secret.”

For most New Yorkers, CSOs are themselves a secret, lingering underfoot or down the street—a silent crisis that does more than prevent New Yorkers from doing the backstroke in Bowery Bay. The CSO problem, encompassing thousands of miles of pipes buried deep beneath one of the most built environments in the world, could prove enormously costly to fix: The city’s plan, which some critics dub inadequate, will run $2.2 billion. But the city could also pay dearly for failing to tackle the problem, risking federal and state penalties and ecological damage that could affect human health and city businesses.

Those stakes will only increase as the city’s population swells by an expected 1 million by 2030, meaning more toilet flushes and shower suds at a time when climate change could be wreaking havoc on the city’s systems for bringing water in and out. PlaNYC is a chance for the city to fix the problem that has been buried under its streets for more than a century before it gets worse, and while New York can still afford the cure.

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