The de Blasio administration has asked state regulators to ease deadlines for fixing its sewage system.

Adi Talwar

A CSO/Wet Weather Discharge Point on the West coast of the Bronx River near Tremont Avenue.

A decades-long effort to curtail the flow of raw sewage into New York City waterways could be set back by COVID-19. The de Blasio administration has asked state regulators to adjust the timetable for addressing pollution from combined sewage overflows (CSOs), citing budget pressures created by the pandemic.

Operating under federal consent orders compelling the city to comply with the Clean Water Act, New York had been planning to spend more than $5 billion in coming years on reducing CSOs. Years of litigation, back-and-forth with regulators and community meetings went into existing plans for 11 different waterways affected by CSOs.

In a recently released progress report on those plans, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection disclosed that, “As a direct result of the economic impacts of COVID‐19 on New York City finances and the ongoing uncertainty of long term impacts, DEP has had to reduce the budget for the fiscal year 2021” and added that the agency was taking a “hard look at the funding for mandated projects that do not have an impact on DEP’s core operations.”

“In order to maintain DEP’s critical function of treating wastewater, these funding constraints may impact future compliance with the milestones covered in this Quarterly Report,” the statement continued. “DEP is making best efforts to mitigate any delays.”

It is unclear exactly what the de Blasio administration has asked to delay, or for how long. “We have recently initiated discussions with our regulators about potentially deferring some planned capital work to offset this near-term shortfall, and to ensure we can continue to carry out our essential day-to-day operations that sustain the city,” DEP spokesman Edward Timbers said in a statement.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation told City Limits it was “currently reviewing the city’s letter and assessing potential impacts with the city.”

“Substantial modifications to project plans are not confirmed to date,” the agency said. “DEC will continue to work with New York City to ensure the CSO requirements are protective of public health and the environment.”

Calling on state, feds for oversight

Clean-water advocates have contacted regulators, too. In an August 25 letter to the DEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Riverkeeper senior attorney Mike Dulong asked for a review of the water system’s finances.

“Riverkeeper appreciates the severity of the budget shortfalls facing the city. However, the drinking water and sewer infrastructure programs are legally mandated; the city should not be allowed to abandon its compliance plans without its regulators’ careful consideration,” Dulong wrote. “To forego implementation milestones now could irreparably harm the potential success of the programs and surely end up costing DEP more money in the long run.”

CSOs occur in older sections of the city’s sewage system, in which rainwater from the street and wastewater from bathrooms and kitchens mix in the same pipes on the way to water treatment plans. When it rains heavily, the amount of water in those pipes can overwhelm those plants. The system responds by releasing excess sewage into places like the Bronx River and the Gowanus Canal.

The city discharges billions of gallons in CSO water each year, and while New York Harbor is cleaner than it has been in many decades, CSOs help make many of the city’s tributaries too dirty for boating or swimming.

To address CSOs, the city has said it will build retention tanks and storage tunnels, rework pipes to increase system capacity, disinfect outflow with chlorine and use green infrastructure to keep stormwater out of the system.

DEP pays for that work the same way it pays for its other capital expenditures on treatment plans or upstate reservoirs and aqueducts: by selling bonds backed by revenue from the city’s water rates. Money paid by customers also pays for DEP’s workforce and other operational costs.

Mixed signals and city needs

In the recent progress report, dated July 30, DEP said it had reached out to state regulators asking for a delay as early as March 19—a day before Gov. Cuomo’s PAUSE order effectively shut down the state economy.

But as recently as June, there was no discussion of the potential delay in CSO-reduction work when the city’s Water Board considered and approved water rates for the 2021 fiscal year. Rates were held at their 2019-2020 levels, with millions earmarked for helping households that struggle to pay water bills. At the June meeting, DEP officials told the board that water revenue was running 8 percent below 2019 levels from March through June. Still, the projection was for a modest 1 percent decrease over all of fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30.

“Something drastic has clearly changed in the interim, and the Water Board and the public now need to be updated,” Dulong tells City Limits.

In July and August, according to a DEP spokesman, collections continued to lag 8 percent below 2019 levels. DEP officials chalk up the shortfalls to customers skipping payments, lower water usage by commercial establishments and a delay in the sale of liens against old water debts.

Ominously, City Hall decided late in the 2020 fiscal year to partially store a “rental” payment from the water system to the city’s general fund. During the Bloomberg administration that rental payment, an artifact of 1980s budget machinations, had been partly blamed for a steep jump in water rates. Mayor de Blasio agreed to suspend the payment, but this year reinstated a charge for $128 million – half of what the city could have charged..

“They have made it clear that they needed the money, wanted the money, and they got it,” Water Board Chairman Alfonso Carney, Jr., told the June meeting of the board. So far, the city has said it does not intend to take a rental payment in the current fiscal year. However, the city’s worsening fiscal condition raises the possibility that more water revenue could be diverted to shore up the city’s general fund, leaving less money to underwrite capital projects like the ones on CSOs.

Seeking public review

Advocates worry that state regulators will let the city rewrite its pollution-reduction timetable without public engagement. They also fear that even minor delays could have far-reaching implications. The deadlines in the current plans for the 11 polluted waterbodies are linked to a timeline for green-infrastructure investments, so a slowdown in one part of the scheme could affect other parts. And if projects go dormant for a longer period of time, the city might need to restart procurement processes, tacking on years to already overdue work.

“DEP shouldn’t be making decisions to violate the Clean Water Act by itself,” Dulong says. “If these programs are being held up by the mayor’s office, regulators would need to know that.”

“It’s not that there’s zero flexibility here,” he adds. “It’s that DEP cannot make these decisions on its own.”

Some parts of the city’s pollution control work are still in the planning phase, and there, too, there are delays. The city’s final CSO-control plan, covering New York’s open waters, was originally due in December 2017, but the de Blasio administration received an extension to December 2018 and another to March 2020, and has asked for another, to September.

DEP has, however, made progress toward a different goal—that of reworking the way New York charges property owners for using water. The current system has been faulted as inefficient and unfair, and there has long been interest in replacing it with a system that puts more weight on how much stormwater a property generates. After years of preliminaries, DEP recently awarded a contract for a three-year study of potential alternatives to the current system.