The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) held a public meeting on December 5th to provide updates on their plans to improve water quality in the waterways that surround every borough in New York City. DEP's presentation document from the meeting can be found here. SWIM live streamed the meeting from our Facebook page. You can watch the meeting and hear the questions and comments on our Facebook page, log into your Facebook account and search for @swimmablenyc.
One of the main components of the City's water quality improvement program is a series of plans to reduce Combined Sewer Overflow
pollutants from ten individual
waterways. The plans are referred to as CSO Long Term Control Plans (LTCP) and are intended to reduce one of the main sources of pollution that still plagues many of our local waterways in NYC and around the country — Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO). You can see the full list of individual waterway LTCP's here. Development of the CSO LTCP's plans has been underway since ~2012.
NYC DEP did not provide detailed updates on the individual CSO LTCP's at the December 5th meeting but rather focused on the overall impact of the plans. Eight of the ten plans have been given the green light by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and are either in the design stage or moving into the implementation stage. Most of the plans will take decades to complete. One plan (Jamaica Bay) is currently with the State (DEC) for review and pending approval to proceed, and the tenth plan, the Citywide Open Waters Plan is just getting started. We published a blog post on this plan last month here.
DEP issues a quarterly report on the LTCP's which can be found here. We think the City should hold quarterly public meetings to review the contents of the reports and explain to stakeholders in detail what's going on in their neighborhoods and waterways. The reports are dense and the average citizen cannot decipher most of the language used in the reports. Additionally, advocates have raised concerns about the City not sharing a final draft of the proposed plans for review and comment before they go to the State for approval to proceed and not sharing information about the discussions that take place between the City and State while the State is reviewing the plans. Click here to see our letter to the City and State about this matter. Sharing the final proposed plans with the public for review and comment is vital to a healthy public process!
SWIM has been pressuring the City to share a draft plan with public for the Citywide Open Waters LTCP as has the NYC City Council. So far, DEP is saying it's not feasible to share the full draft but they'll share a summary document for public comment. Advocates at the meeting repeated the importance of the City allowing the public to review and comment on the final proposed plans before they go to the State so that the State can consider public input during their review process.
At the December 5th meeting, as in years past, waterway advocates raised concerns about the fact that New York City is basing the CSO LTP's on out – of - date water quality assessment criteria.
For example, DEP included a slide (depicted above) that, at first glance, seemed to convey that when the CSO Long Term Control Plans are completed, most of the waters will be at or close to attainment of bacteria levels that federal health standards mandate for safe contact. If the City and State were to use the most up – to - date bacteria assessment criteria ( used by most cities and states in the U.S.), many of the waters getting a CSO LTCP would not be in attainment throughout the recreation season when the plans are completed. To their credit, DEP also showed what attainment would look like if they were to assess the plans based on the more advanced criteria but it wasn't the whole picture and to the average member of the public, the slide was misleading. Eagle eyes in attendance called the City out on the the way the information was presented.
So far, the City has not been willing or mandated by the State to base their plans on the more stringent criteria (called enterococcus) even thought the EPA has mandated that the State of New York do so. Enterococcus is the criteria upon which the City's long term control plans should be based! #switchtoentero!
In addition to not using up- to - date water quality assessment criteria, the proposed plans are not modeled on rainfall data that accounts for the intense and heavy storms that have now become the new normal and are forecasted to get worse in the decades ahead. While we recognize that the plans got started pre-hurricane Sandy, as they move into the implementation stage over the next couple of decades, the City will need to adapt the plans to properly account for more frequent intense storms and larger volumes of precipitation over short periods of than the plans currently model.
The City's ambitious Green Infrastructure Plan was another topic at the December 5th public meeting. Green Infrastructure (GI) solutions are a key component of the City's plans to address the stormwater runoff that inundates our sewer system and pollutes our waterways. DEP has implemented the first phase of the GI plan in the public right of way since 2012 and continues to make progress with the effort though they are behind on several of the first important milestones set forth in the 2012 CSO Consent Order. The priority areas they targeted for the first phase of the plan are being monitored closely and DEP has doubled their maintenance staff for the right of way rain gardens which will help the gardens thrive better in their first year of installation.
At the December 5th meeting, DEP announced that they've developed an adopt a rain garden program which will help build awareness of the many purposes the rain gardens serve and the benefits they provide to the neighborhoods where they are installed. Getting stakeholders involved in the care of these gardens will help them flourish as we've seen with street trees that are cared for by local stewards throughout the City. We look forward to adopting a rain garden soon!
To incentivize GI on private property NYC DEP has a grant program that reimburses private property owners in the combined sewer area of the City (here’s a map of the CSO portion of the City) who install green infrastructure and agree to maintain it over time. The plan is now expanding into the Municipal Separate Sewer System areas of the City which is something advocates have long called for. DEP hosts GI grant workshops a few times per year to help people understand the program and determine if they can take advantage of it. Information about the grant and workshops is listed here and you can sign up to get notification about the workshops. Advocates have provided input to DEP outlining recommendations that would allow more people take advantage of the program.
Here is a document that was sent to DEP in 2017 by SWIM Coalition member, NRDC and NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.
Capturing stormwater before it enters our antiquated systems is something every City across the nation is grappling with. Green Infrastructure in the public right of way is going to get us part of the way there. Private property owners need to pitch in and help out at every scale, from small backyard projects to large scale industrial and commercial property owners. Here is a great guide, produced by SWIM Coalition members NYC Soil and Water Conservation District and Riverkeeper, to some simple green infrastructure initiatives that building owners in NYC can initiate on their own or potentially get help from the City’s grant program to implement.
Another important aspect of addressing the CSO challenges in our waterways is public awareness.
Alerting the public when a CSO event is happening is vital to public health and safety. The current CSO Alert system is in need of revamping. DEP has held a stakeholder workshop in 2018 to get public input on how they can improve the system. At the public meeting they reviewed the current pilot efforts underway and ways they plan to improve the system in 2019. Advocates have called for a warning system at waterway access points that provides citizens with current condition information so they know if it is safe to wade in or kayak in a waterway. We'd like to see an informational kiosk system next to local waterways like the ones used in the subway to check train status. We've also recommended that DEP collaborate with local tv weather reports to help get the word out about CSO events and the need for folks to help out using less water on rainy days.
DEP is currently piloting a text alert system in certain neighborhoods to let people know that a CSO event is likely and if they can lessen their water use for a 7 -14 hour period of time, the system will be less inundated. The pilot is derived from a program that Newtown Creek Alliance and SWIM Coalition tested out back in 2011. Here is a New York Times article about the current pilot program. The City reported at the meeting that they are seeing a positive impact in the areas where the pilot has been conducted so far! They said at the public meeting that they hope to scale it up citywide in the near future.
In addition to CSO pollution in NYC waterways, there is a ton of trash! The City calls the trash "floatables" and is working closely with other city agencies to address the issue.
DEP provided an update on an upcoming study they plan to conduct in 2019 to develop a set of solutions to lessen the amount of trash that gets into our waterways. One of the big issues we see as a problem is the overflowing trashcans on the City's streets. When it rains heavily all the loose trash in our streets gets swept up in the rushing waters and goes down the catch basins in the street where it is then transported directly into our waterways.
Here is atypical example of trash overflowing in a NYC street corner garbage can. If you see one that full don't add to it! Too much of this ends up in our waterways.
NYC DEP's Floatables Study will provide some statistics and solutions for how we'll address this issue in the near future.