On Wednesday, January 29th, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will present its proposed plan to reduce sewage pollution that discharges from the City's combined sewer system into some of the largest water bodies across all five boroughs.
The waterways in this plan are: the Hudson River, Harlem River, East River, Western Long Island Sound, Upper and Lower NY Harbor, Kill Van Kull, Arthur Kill, and the many inlets and embayments that line these waters ( see list of inlets and embayments below). The plan, which DEP calls the "Citywide Plan" or the "East River Open Waters Plan", impacts every borough of New York City.
Citizens and waterway stakeholders across the city should be sure to attend the January 29th meeting to let DEP know we want sewage pollution out of waterways. See details and register for the meeting here. Stakeholders are concerned that DEP is not planning to significantly reduce sewage pollution in the vital waterways of the Citywide plan. Scroll down to learn more.
The Citywide plan is meant to address nearly 11 billion gallons of the total ~20 billion gallons of combined sewer discharges (CSO) that pollute our waterways each year. This plan is particularly relevant to the embayments and inlets along the shoreline of the open waters, where New Yorkers recreate and where the waters are less likely to be flushed by tidal action and are therefore more likely to become and stay contaminated.
These include areas such as:
Bronx Kill (East and West)
Inwood Park and Muscota Marsh
North Cove Yacht Harbor
Seventy-Ninth Street Boat Basin
Navy Yard Basin
Mill Creek Basin
Sharrotts Shoreline Inlet
Port Richmond Inlet
Waterway stakeholders across the city are deeply concerned about DEP's presentations to the public for the Citywide plan so far. At public meetings last year, DEP presented their water quality analysis for the waters in the Citywide plan (which is what they ultimately base their proposed actions on) and seemed to be saying the waters are pretty clean. Stewards who monitor these waters on a regular basis immediately called DEP's clean water attainment assessment into question. DEP appears to be using a number of questionable methods in its water quality analysis that can significantly skew the results.
Below is a distilled set of key points drawn from the public comments of several SWIM Coalition members and a deeper dive into this topic for those who want more detail:
1. We won't be able to safely recreate in the water even after the plan is implemented.
DEP aims to meet weak, outdated water quality standards – and to do so only 95% of the time, in selected locations. That would excuse scores of sewage overflow events per year, when it would be unsafe even to touch the water – particularly in bays and inlets where the public accesses the water and the tides dissipate pollution very slowly.
2. DEP is not planning realistically for climate change.
DEP fails to address the city’s climate change predictions that call for more frequent and intense precipitation. Annual precipitation is expected to increase by 4 to 11 percent by the 2050s, yet DEP still relies on rainfall patterns from 2008, which it takes to represent “current average rainfall conditions,” as the basis for projecting future overflows. This likely overstates DEP’s CSO reductions plans.
3. The City is basing the LTCP on green infrastructure goals it is not on track to meet.
The City’s water quality models assume the DEP will meet its green infrastructure targets. But DEP is woefully behind in green infrastructure implementation and is not on track to meet its 2030 goals, nor does it have a plan to get back on track. Thus, the city is overestimating future pollution reductions.
4. Major pollution sources are left unaddressed.
DEP only focuses its analysis on bacteria and dissolved oxygen reduction. It fails to analyze the impacts of floatables (trash), among others, which are also subject to water quality standards. Further, DEP points to as-yet unaddressed pollution from other sources, in both NYC and New Jersey, as an excuse not to maximize its own CSO reductions. The LTCP must analyze the full range of CSO pollutants that cause adverse impacts on receiving water quality, not just pathogens and dissolved oxygen, and must view NYC CSO reduction as part of a larger effort to achieve water quality standards.
5. The plan is not based on sound science, likely overstating water quality improvements.
DEP appears to be using a number of questionable methods in its water quality analysis that can significantly skew the results. These include relying on selective water quality samples that are likely to miss the highest levels of pollution; using questionable modeling methods; and cherry-picking model results to obscure likely pollution hotspots.
6. DEP is overlooking opportunities for progress, short of what it deems to be compliance with water quality standards, that would enable more fishing and swimming uses.
In prior LTCPs, DEP analyzed solutions based on multiple factors that affect water usability, such as the number of days with overflows or the amount of time after an overflow that it takes to return to safe water quality, using both existing water quality criteria and more protective criteria that EPA has directed the state to adopt. In its analysis of options, DEP is presenting one binary metric: whether or not the solution will (95% of the time) cure the water quality impairment, as measured by existing, weak water quality criteria. This type of analysis is likely to rule out solutions that can significantly improve water quality.
7. People need the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the planning process.
The public needs an opportunity to review the full draft LTCP before it is sent to the state, or we will not be able to provide educated input on the plan. The public meetings hosted by DEP and the summary documents omit crucial data necessary for evaluating the LTCPs, including key assumptions, methodologies, and accountability to the community.
Deep Dive Background:
New York City has a goal of making our waterways more accessible to the public by the year 2030.
In order to meet the 2030 goal, the waters that surround us have to meet federal health standards for safe contact. The primary tools the City is deploying in pursuit of the 2030 goal since ~2010 are the eleven CSO Long Term Control Plans (which began in 2012 and will be in implementation through at least 2042) and the Green Infrastructure Plan (which began in 2010). They have since added a Stormwater Management Plan for the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (which began implementation in 2019). Scroll down to learn more about each of these initiatives.
CSO discharges from our combined sewer system are the largest ongoing source of pollution in NYC's waterways. Wet weather events often overwhelm the City's antiquated Combined Sewer System causing it to divert untreated wastewater into our waterways (to the tune of ~20 billion gallons per year), this is called a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). With more frequent and intense storms predicted for our region throughout the 21st century, we can expect that CSO discharge events will increase.
Here is a map of all the sewer outfall points along our shorelines and the amount of CSO discharge volume in each city council district. Click on a section of the map to get information about the number of CSO events in your district. Here is a link to a Riverkeeper microsite about CSO pollution called Cut the Crap NYC! that outlines the challenges and proposes some solutions.
What's the City Doing to Meet the 2030 Goals?
While the City has made great strides in cleaning up NYC's waterways over the past few decades, our shared waters have a long way to go before they can meet the clean water standards of the Clean Water Act and truly unlock the full potential of our waterways as a vital resource for all New Yorkers.
NYC faces many challenges that impact our waters. The issues that burden the City are formidable, including an antiquated combined sewer system and the difficult regulatory, infrastructure, planning, and water quality decisions that must be made to address them. New development, rezoning, and rapid urbanization all have an impact on the City's infrastructure. Cross agency collaboration and a holistic planning process is vital. The plans below are only those of the DEP and focus on reducing CSO and stormwater runoff pollution.
The NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is tasked with implementing a series of plans, rules, and initiatives that aim to capture and manage stormwater runoff ( through a hybrid mix of green and grey infrastructure solutions) to lessen the inundation of our wastewater treatment plants which causes CSO discharge events. Below is a list of the plans and initiatives that DEP is implementing along with our assessment of the plans to date.
A. The City is Implementing 11 CSO Long Term Control Plans
Here is a link to our webpage on the eleven plans where you find fact sheets and details about each of the individual plans.
Challenges with the plans:
The City's CSO Long Term Control Plans are falling short across the board. See our Fact Sheet about this here. From what we've seen so far, when all 11 of the Long Term Control Plans are completed, and billions of dollars have been invested in public (a mix of grey and green) infrastructure the City will still discharge ~18 billion gallons of untreated sewage into our waterways. With more frequent and intense storms projected for our region this number could easily go up.
The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is falling short on its oversight of the City's waterways by not adopting the more scientifically defensible water quality criteria and calling on the City to use it in their planning. In fact, the DEC has recently proposed removing important protections for many of NYC's waters in order to avoid having to adopt the new standards. Here is a link to SWIM's testimony about this at a public hearing in early January 2020. SWIM Coalition members and partners will request a meeting with DEC representatives this year to discuss our concerns.
The US EPA has also fallen short on their oversight of the mandate they issued to the state in 2012 to adopt the more scientifically defensible water quality criteria. While EPA has had some contact with DEC since 2012, the exchanges have been opaque at best and have not directly addressed the State's lack of progress in adopting the more protective water quality criteria. Several watchdog groups have a lawsuit underway which calls out the EPA's lax oversight of New York's waterways and the fact that they have not enforced their mandate for the State to adopt the current water quality criteria being used across the nation.
Essentially, we have eleven CSO Long Term Control Plans that will be implemented over the the next decade (at a cost of ~$5.2 billion) and when they are complete, we'll still have 18 billion gallons of CSO pollution discharging into our waters every year. NYCDEP says even if they reduce CSO pollution to zero (they don't have the money to do that) we still wouldn't be in compliance with the Clean Water Act. They site that "others sources," namely stormwater runoff from our municipal separate storm sewer system ( often referred to as the MS4) would still make our waters unsafe to touch in some cases. So why don't the Long Term Control Plans address that source you might ask? Many cities across the nation are using the USEPA's framework for integrated plans to manage municipal wastewater and stormwater. This is the planning model SWIM and our members have advised NYC DEP to use. NYC has two separate plans, one for combined sewer system and one for the separate storm sewer system ( see more on this plan below).
City Council members have written to the Mayor calling for improved plans and a stronger public process. Several City Council Committee Chairs have introduced legislation, Intro 1618, that calls for DEP to expand their communication with stakeholders, through the formation of a citizens advisory committee in every borough, a series of reports that would help inform improved plans, and a mandate that the City develop more integrated plans based on the USEPA model for integrated municipal CSO and MS4 planning. There will be a public hearing on Intro 1618 in the spring of 2020.
The City and State need to adopt the more scientifically defensible water quality criteria and apply them to our all of our water quality improvement plans. The Mayor has the authority to call for this higher standard for New York City's waters. We have called on him to take this action. To date, he has not. City's across the U.S. are using the higher standard. It is time for New York to do so as well. With officials at the federal level rolling back important protections it is up to cities to take bold action to preserve and improve our natural resources at the local level.
B. The NYC Green Infrastructure Plan
The City's Green Infrastructure (GI) plan for GI on public property is a highly ambitious plan with enforceable milestones that are tied to the CSO Consent Order between the City and State. Through the plan, NYC will have 5000 rain gardens installed in the public right of way and GI on many city owned properties by 2030.
While much positive progress has been made, several of the milestones have not been met. NYC DEP is currently working on a contingency plan that will show how they plan to meet the milestones and by when.
The NYC City Council Climate Mobilization Act, which passed in 2019 contains two local laws that mandate green roofs and/or solar panels on all new roofs and most retrofits. These laws will stimulate an increase in green roofs and the benefits they provide, including reducing the stormwater that inundates our sewer systems (the root cause of CSO pollution). Here is a Policy Brief on the laws.
C. The NYC Stormwater Management Plan for the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) is just getting underway. The first complete annual report is due out later this year.
This plan addresses untreated stormwater runoff that discharges directly into our waterways from approximately 30% of the City's land, roads, and buildings. This an additional source of pollution in our waterways on top of the CSO pollution.
This plan undertakes the issue of illicit sewer connections: a scenario throughout the city where wastewater pipes from buildings are connected to the MS4 stormwater pipes under the street instead of the Combined Sewer system pipes so human waste travels through the wrong set of pipes and is directly discharged into a waterway rather than traveling to a wastewater treatment plant. Tracking these connections is difficult sometimes the buildings where this happens are old and the connections were never updated, sometimes a new building's pipes get incorrectly connected, and sometimes a cap can get flipped open as was the case in a recent large scale illicit discharge instance in Coney Island Creek. Waterway stewards are often the first to notice these instances because they will see or smell discharges coming out of a pipe on a dry weather day.
The Stormwater Management Plan for the MS4 outlines the City's plans for building public awareness of these issues, develop a better tracking system for the illicit connections, and how DEP will work with industrial sites in the MS4 area to ensure that they are not contributing to polluted runoff from their properties. An annual report on the progress of the various aspects for this plan will be issued in 2020.
A New Stormwater Rule for new development and retrofits to capture and manage more stormwater runoff onsite will help address ways to capture stormwater on sites before it enters and inundates the city's sewer systems which is the root cause of CSO and stormwater pollution in our waterways ( DEP is planning to update and improve the rules in late 2020). City Council has just introduced legislation for the new rule, Intro 1851. A public hearing on the rule will be held in 2020. SWIM is studying the details of the bill now and will report back about it here on our blog in early 2020.
D. The NYC DEP Water Rate Restructuring Study
SWIM and our partners have called on NYC DEP and the Water Board to restructure the current water rate in order to accurately and equitably account for a property's stormwater runoff impact on the city's sewer systems.
The NYC DEP is about to embark on a three year study starting this year which will explore restructuring the water rate to properly account for a property's stormwater impact. SWIM has called on DEP to ensure that they engage the public in the study from the beginning by forming a citizens advisory committee. Here is a link to our full set of recommendations.
In New York City, everyone is charged the same amount for the City's management of stormwater runoff. So, a single family house with very little runoff pays the same amount as a large big box store with a giant parking lot. This is not accurate or equitable.
Cities across the US have already restructured their water rates in order to establish funding streams to improve their wastewater infrastructure.
SWIM member, NRDC issued a report on this topic several years ago and worked closely with Riverkeeper on a dashboard tool that demonstrates how various restructure scenarios would impact different property types. Here is a link to the report and here is a link to the dashboard tool.
All of the programs listed above are interconnected and as a whole will help renew the the health of NYC waterways. SWIM and our partners strive toward ensuring that we will leave a better legacy for our waters than the one the current generation of New Yorkers has inherited. Working together through a sustained and productive dialogue with all of the responsible parties and a platform of affecting positive change through policy, education, and outreach will deliver cleaner waters for all New Yorkers over the decade.