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TrouBle
New York City’s
silent sewage crisis
27 billion gallons of untreated
wastewater—enough to
cover the Bronx, Manhattan
and Staten Island a foot deep.
That’s what New York City’s
fawed sewage system dumps
into our waterways each
year. Under legal pressure
and facing enormous
costs, the mayor’s PlaNYC
sustainability initiative
seeks to reduce—but
not eliminate—the spills.
With the city’s population
expected to grow to 9 million
by 2030, is the Bloomberg
administration charting a
course for a greener, cleaner
New York? Or is it just
treading water?
SUMMER 2007 VOL. 31 NO. 02
By anna lenzer and jarrett murphy
A pipe for emptying sewage overfows—containing rainwater and human waste— into the East River. Photo: Jarrett Murphy
PUBLISHER’S NOTE By many measures, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC
2030 initiative is an uncommon and most welcome instance of government acting in a for-
ward-thinking manner. It is rare enough when government policymakers look fve years
down the road, much less 23, and rarer still when the organizing principle of such an exer-
cise is “sustainability.”
In this age of anxiety and inconvenient truths, you could almost hear throughout New
York an audible sigh of relief after the mayor’s announcement: “Ahhh, we’re dealing with it
. . . trees, green thinking, new technologies . . .” But at City Limits Investigates, all gift horses
must be looked in the mouth. And when we took a close look at the teeth of this piece of
policymaking, we found a curious cavity of timidity in the mayor’s plan.
What authors Anna Lenzer and Jarrett Murphy found was an administration only tenta-
tively grappling with water quality and sewage issues. As you’ll discover, amid what seems
to be a bold broader plan, when it comes to muck, the mayor’s plan gets stuck.
The desire to ignore the unpleasant is one of the strongest of all human impulses—and
dealing with human waste certainly qualifes as unpleasant. New York City came late to the
game of dealing with its sewage issues forthrightly; we were still dumping a hefty share of
our sewage directly in our waterways as late as 1986. We are still playing catch-up. Today we
end up releasing some 27 billion gallons (that’s right: billions) of untreated waste-flled water
into our rivers, oceans and bays—and that represents improvement. The status quo is unac-
ceptable, but as a million more New Yorkers arrive in coming decades, the stakes get higher,
the options grow more limited and the costs of remediation become prohibitive. Failure to
get out ahead of this problem could potentially limit the city’s growth, add to disease, trigger
legal action and fnes, compel punitive federal intervention and circumscribe our recreational
options. And as some of our sidebars report, this sewage challenge looms as the costs of
protecting New York’s drinking water swell and as taxpayers chafe at the growing tab.
So, dealing with the unpleasant isn’t merely a question of holding our noses. It means
protecting our pocketbooks, our health and our general well-being. And if a larger message
of PlaNYC is “if not now, when?” then why the incrementalism here? Is the city reaching as
far into its green tool bag as it can?
To paraphrase Kermit: It is neither cheap nor easy being green. But green is what we
must be.
—Andy Breslau,
Publisher
P.S. We want to hear from you. If you have any thoughts about this issue, feel free to write a
letter to the editor at: City Limits, 120 Wall Street, 20th Fl., New York, NY, 10005.
WATER
PRESSURE
Facing the challenge
of New York’s endless
sewage spill
CHAPTERS
I. The pipe 4
II. Overfow 8
III. Toxic threat 10
IV. A rising tide 14
V. Which end of the pipe? 17
VI. The new plan 19
VII. A confuence 26
IN FOCUS
Is this the N? 6
The mysteries of Jamaica Bay
Diving In 9
Life and leisure in city waters
Ducks and Cover 10
Row over reservoirs
A passing FAD 12
The watershed wish list
Risky Waters 16
Rate reform realities
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BOARD OF DiRECtORS:
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SUMMER 2007 VOL. 31 NO. 02
the mayor, seen here delivering his PlaNYC
speech in April, has set ambitious goals for
reducing traffc and improving infrastructure,
but his target for controlling sewage overfows
replicates what a court order has already told
the city to do. Photo: City Hall
City Limits investigates
4 SUMMER 2007
waTer
pressure
Facing the challenge of
New York’s endless sewage spill
I. The pipe
On a sunny day, the shallow waters spar-
kle as sunlight flters 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 un-
heard 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 foating through
a borough of 1.4 million people. But then
you slip under Tremont Avenue, start to
drift toward the Cross Bronx Express-
way 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 mix-
ture 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 Sta-
dium 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 overfow
(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 fll the Empire State Building
98 times or sink 779 Titanics—a suff-
cient amount to wreak havoc with un-
derwater 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 fowed 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
fush 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 overfow.
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 Offce of Long-Term
BY anna lenzer and jarreTT murphY
City Limits investigates
this outfall at Soundview Park empties an estimated 771 million gallons of wastewater into the Bronx River each year. Photo: Jarrett Murphy
is This The n?
The mysteries of Jamaica Bay
For all its attention to the sewage system failures that lead to CSOs,
Mayor Bloomberg’s sustainability plan seems to downplay a problem
that occurs even when sewage overfows don’t: the release of nitrogen
into the city’s waterways.
Nitrogen has long been a part of the sludge that emerges from treat-
ment at the city’s plants. The city used to dump the sludge at sea, but
after Congress prohibited that practice in 1988, New York equipped
eight of its sewage plants to process the stuff—which basically means
spinning the sludge in large centrifuges to extract virtually all liquid
from the waste. The solid that remains can be used for fll or fertilizer,
and the liquid is discharged into the nearest waterway. That water is
free of bacteria and grit but can be loaded with nitrogen.
Excess nitrogen knocks an underwater ecosystem off balance. The
nitrogen triggers blooms of algae, which then die and get decomposed
by microbes that consume dissolved oxygen in the water. Without suf-
fcient oxygen, fsh can’t survive. In New York’s archipelago, two wa-
terways that have been severely affected by this lack of oxygen (called
“hypoxia”) are Long Island Sound and Jamaica Bay.
When fsh began dying in Long Island Sound in the 1980s, the EPA
and the states of New York and Connecticut launched a study that led
in 1994 to the establishment of specifc goals for reducing the amount
of nitrogen going into the water. The new limits applied to New York
City’s four Upper East River sewage treatment plants that discharge
into the western end of Long Island Sound. Environmental groups and
then the state of New York sued the city in 1998 for violating those lim-
its, which led the state and city to agree in 2002 on steps for reducing
nitrogen releases in both the sound and Jamaica Bay. As the state was
reviewing that plan, however, the city concluded that it would cost too
much (it estimated the price tag at $1.3 billion) and sought changes.
When the state refused to rework the deal, the city sued—and lost. In
early 2006, however, the city and the state agreed to a new consent
order committing to specifc but less costly measures for a 58.5 percent
reduction of nitrogen emissions to the sound by 2017, at an expense of
about $997 million over a decade.
But on Jamaica Bay, the 2006 consent order set looser goals. While it
calls for the city to upgrade the 26th Ward sewage treatment plant, the
order does not require fxes to the other three wastewater facilities that
discharge into the bay. And while the order set limits on daily nitrogen
discharges into the bay, the limit is actually more than the city releases
now. Under the order, the city was compelled to produce a “compre-
hensive plan” for how to reduce Jamaica Bay’s nitrogen. Released last
October and currently under state review, the report recommends us-
ing less effective nitrogen-removal technology than is available, mainly
because of cost: The report estimates a $1.5 billion difference between
what the city could do at the limit of technology, and what it recom-
mends doing instead.
The city’s bay report also expresses great interest in recontouring
the bay—in other words, flling in the deep holes that were dredged
for ships—because dissolved oxygen depletion is worst at the great-
est depths. But flling in the bay could take a lot of time and money,
and the water might not be able to wait. While Jamaica Bay has been
an ecological worry for decades (fshing and swimming were banned
there as early as 1916), a recent sign of the bay’s troubled health has
been the steady disappearance of its wetlands. It’s something that Dan
Mundy, a lifelong resident of Broad Channel and a member of Jamaica
Bay EcoWatchers, has witnessed in the past decade. “The water is
about 15 feet from my house,” he says. “You can see what’s going on
in the water just by looking out your window.” The marshes are disap-
pearing at a pace of 44 acres per year—and could vanish completely
by 2020.
One scientist, Alex Kolker of Tulane University, thinks that excess ni-
trogen, through the biological processes it triggers, could be one reason
the marshes are disintegrating. When nitrogen depletes the dissolved
oxygen in a water body, bacteria survive by breaking down sulfate into
hydrogen sulfde. When there’s too much hydrogen sulfde in the water,
Kolker’s research indicates, it can kill the plants that make up marshes.
A mix of causes is likely to blame for wetlands loss, which is happen-
ing all over the New York estuary. Besides nitrogen, sea level rises, bird
foraging and changes in sediments are potential culprits. In Jamaica
Bay, there are multiple pollution sources, including CSO outfalls and old
landflls located along the bay’s rim that could be leaching toxins into
the water. John F. Kennedy International Airport is a huge impervious
surface whose runoff into the bay sometimes includes the chemicals
used to de-ice planes and runways.
PlaNYC says that because “traditional nitrogen removal processes
require large, capital upgrades and high operating costs” DEP will ex-
periment with “several emerging technologies,” but offers few details.
Advocates for the bay think nitrogen is a missing link in the plan. “This
was a concern that we raised for some time throughout the develop-
ment of PlaNYC and ultimately it didn’t really get resolved in a way that
we wanted it to,” says Brad Sewell, a senior attorney at the National
Resources Defense Council. “I mean, [Jamaica Bay] is the largest open
space in the city, and for it not to be on the city’s sustainability agenda,
and I think it’s fair to say it’s not—I think it should be a concern.”
—JARRETT MURPhY
City Limits investigates
6 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
there’s no offcial explanation for the disappearance of marshland
from Jamaica Bay. One suspect is nitrogen from storm runoff, sewage
overfows and wastewater plants. Photo: Jarrett Murphy
source: DeP source: ePA
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 7
Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS),
“but we want it cleaner still, so that we
can fsh, swim, and enjoy the rivers
that have always been the city’s most
distinctive feature.” The mayor later an-
nounced a goal of opening 90 percent
of New York’s tributaries to recreation.
The city’s swimmers, boaters, fshers
and others who simply prefer to gaze
out over clean rather than contaminat-
ed water had reason to be excited. The
can-do mayor who had taken control of
the schools, managed the post 9-11 fs-
cal crisis and pushed crime to surpris-
ing new lows was on the march.
PlaNYC was to be his battle plan. Re-
leased in April, the 158-page PlaNYC
report adopts many of the most progres-
sive 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 refects the spirit of enthusiasm
and hope that underlies the mayor’s en-
tire 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 per-
cent of its wet-weather sewage—only
marginally better than the 72 percent
it captures already, less ambitious than
what other big cities with similar sew-
ers 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 tribu-
taries 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 Envi-
ronmental Education at the Lower East
Side Ecology Center. “90 percent open
to recreation? Well, the Clean Water Act
is more ambitious than that. State wa-
ter 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 overfow prob-
lem by storing excess water until the
treatment plants can handle it. But the
city’s Department of Environmental
Protection (DEP) is sending mixed sig-
nals on whether alternative technolo-
gies have a role to play in replacing the
tanks. While there are hopeful signs in
PlaNYC’s examination of green solu-
tions to the sewage overfows, those
pipe hYpe
there are at least 494 combined sewer overfow (CSO) outfalls in the city, from Kill
Van Kull in Staten island to East 233rd Street on the Hutchinson River in the Bronx.
Some produce almost nothing; others are estimated to release more than a billion
gallons of CSO water each year. these are the top fve:
FLUSHING BAY
at Corona Ave., Queens
cso ciTies
New york City has federal permits for
more combined sewer overfow outfalls
than any other jurisdiction in the United
States. Here are the other top cities by
their number of CSO release pipes:
1,344
1,434
1,433
1,140
937
BOWERY BAY
at 81st St., Queens
HARLEM RIVER
at W. 192 St., Bronx
PAERDEGAT BASIN
at Flatland Ave., Brooklyn
GRAVESEND BAY
at 17th Ave., Brooklyn
ANNUAL OUTPUT (MILLIONS OF GALLONS)
0
50
100
150
200
250
300
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What a CSO discharge can deliver
NitrogeN: Contained in fertilizer that gets picked up with storm runoff and in human urine
and feces, nitrogen triggers underwater biological processes that can starve waterways of the
dissolved oxygen that supports aquatic life. Many New York City waterways do not meet state
standards for dissolved oxygen.
Coliform: Coliforms are bacteria found in animal waste. Most aren’t infectious, but if they
are detected in water they might indicate the presence of dangerous pathogens. One coliform,
however, is highly toxic: E. coli O157:h7, a strain of the bacteria that can lead to severe and even
fatal infections.
floatables: CSOs can transport the litter that people toss on the street to the city’s water-
ways and, sometimes, beaches. DEP surveys indicate that about 40 percent of foatables are
plastic, with the rest divided between paper and polystyrene. Besides being unsightly, foatables
can kill animals that mistake the buoyant trash for food.
PolyChloriNated biPheNyls (PCbs): According to the EPA, “PCBs are probable human
carcinogens and can also cause non-cancer health effects, such as reduced ability to fght infec-
tions, low birth weights, and learning problems.”
metals aNd more: Mercury can impair brain development in fetuses and infants. CSO test-
ing also reveals high readings for harmful substances like silver, cadmium, lead, pesticides and
industrial byproducts like dioxins and furans.
City Limits investigates
8 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
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 offcial who has
carefully reviewed PlaNYC and gener-
ally supports it calls the meaningless-
ness 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, encompass-
ing thousands of miles of pipes buried
deep beneath one of the most built en-
vironments in the world, could prove
enormously costly to fx: 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 prob-
lem, 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 ex-
pected 1 million by 2030, meaning more
toilet fushes 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 fx 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.
II. Overfow
The city’s annual wastewater over-
fow is enough to provide each New
Yorker with more than 3,200 gallons
of the stuff. But there’s no way to see
your share of what ends up in the riv-
ers, or even in the treatment plants.
The essence of modern bathroom
convenience is the ability to, with a
quick fush, put the matter out of sight
and mind. This is not new. The ability
to drain sewage has long been one of
most important hallmarks of advanced
civilization: Roman aqueducts make
for nice postcards, but Rome’s sewers
were arguably as important in keeping
the empire above water.
Before the convenience of the fush,
there was a time when New York City’s
feces must have been on everybody’s
minds. In the pre-sewer days of 1829,
it’s estimated that 100 tons of the brown
stuff were thrown into Manhattan’s
streets or soil every day. Some of the ex-
crement was trucked out to the river to
be forgotten in the tide, but the rest was
disposed of rather close to the city’s lim-
ited supply of fresh water. That practice
led to successive and deadly outbreaks
of cholera, a gruesome bacterial illness
whose combination of watery diarrhea
and vomiting can kill a person in hours.
Despite these regular horrors, it took
decades for the city’s leadership to se-
cure a safe supply of fresh water to the
city and a reliable system for getting its
solid waste out of sight and mind. By
1857, however, toilets were abundant
enough for New Yorker Joseph Gay-
etty to start marketing the world’s frst
bathroom tissue.
As the frst of New York’s waste col-
lection tunnels were constructed from
1850 to 1855, however, the city literally
E. coli O157:H7 is a fecal bacteria that is
potentially fatal to humans. Photo: National
Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
diving in
Life and leisure in city waters
When Seinfeld’s Kramer swam in the East River, he acquired a stink that
wouldn’t leave. Comedian George Carlin joked about building up his im-
mune system by diving into the “raw sewage” that flled the hudson.
One gangster movie after another has portrayed New York harbor as
little more than a dumping ground for bodies. Although popular culture
has primed us to think about New York City waters as dirty, that hasn’t
stopped people from using them in healthy ways.
Captain Joe Shastay, for example, has been leading fshing expeditions
on the East River for more than seventeen years. Described as a “lunatic
prophet” at the website Thrillist.com, this consummate angler is making
a crazy prediction—that a new golden age of East River fshing, reminis-
cent of the early 1800s, is ahead. “If history repeats itself,” Shastay says,
and clearly he thinks that it could, “there were once robust boat liveries.
You could rent a boat, go out fshing and buy bait.”
One of the most common questions Shastay gets about the East River
is, “Are there really fsh in there?” According to him, customers are usually
surprised by how healthy the fsh look. Although he has eaten plenty of his
catches over the years, he now releases most of them. The New York State
Department of health says women of childbearing age and kids under 15
should eat nothing from the East River. Other anglers can consume up to
six blue crabs a week but no more than one meal a month of East River
bluefsh, needlefsh or smelt. No one is supposed to eat any eel or shad
from the waterway. These warnings haven’t stopped Shastay’s customers
from indulging and the activity has become so popular throughout New
York City in recent years that Shastay thinks there may be a danger of
overfshing. It’s getting harder to reel them in, but the captain claims to
know “secret spots” to make sure that “everybody comes home happy.”
Trade in your rods for paddles if you’re going on a trip with Michael
hunter. he grew up in northern Michigan, where his parents were boating
outftters. So even though not a native of the city, he was well qualifed
to lead the Bronx River Alliance’s canoeing program when he moved to
New York. The organization has been running trips since 1999, but he has
only been in charge of the program since last April. The effort is expand-
ing, hunter says, perhaps because of the success of recent cleanup efforts
that have led to the return of a now famous “Bronx beaver” named Jose
(after Congressman Jose Serrano, a supporter of the cleanup effort).
Fishing and boating are usually considered “secondary contact” with
New York City waters. Primary contact, of course, is swimming. “I swim
every day of the year,” says Louis Scarcella, president of the Coney Island
Polar Bear Club. he claimed that 70 members took a dip in the ocean
during this April’s Nor’easter. Neither rain nor wind nor sewage will keep
a polar bear away from the water. In fact, at the time of our interview,
New York had just been hit by a severe storm followed by days of steady
downpours, which usually contaminate the waters; after all, there’s a
combined sewage overfow outlet on Coney Island that empties very
close to the area where Scarcella swims. he was expecting the worst in
his swim after the storm, but found the water relatively clean that day.
One day in early May, however, Scarcella wasn’t so lucky, and had to
call DEP with the results of his own water test: When Scarcella emerged
from the waves, he was covered in oil.
—ADAM KLASFELD
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 9
laid the groundwork for its current sewage problem. Engi-
neers designed the city’s system to handle rainwater and
sewage water in a single pipe. New York is not alone in
having that design. In New York Harbor, the city’s com-
bined sewage outfall pipes are joined by 26 in Yonkers and
more than 250 up and down the Jersey metro coast. Na-
tionwide, some 772 cities, counties and other jurisdictions
housing 40 million people in 32 states dump an estimated
850 billion gallons of storm and sewage water each year.
And where there are combined sewers, there are com-
bined sewer overfows. A Canadian environmental group
has estimated that over 24 billion gallons of CSO water
ends up in the Great Lakes each year. The group claims
that’s “more than 100 Olympic swimming pools full of raw
sewage” a day. That’s a staggering image. What’s stunning
is that New York City releases even more.
The faws in a combined sewer system are not always
apparent: On many days, 1.4 billion gallons of wastewater
fow through the city’s 6,000 miles of pipe, through 93
pumping stations linked by computer to DEP monitor-
ing stations, and into one of 14 sewage treatment plants
without incident. At the plant, the water gets treated and
fows out cleanly into local waterways.
But wastewater treatment plants are only designed to
handle a certain volume of water; their maximum wet
weather capacity ranges from about 80 million gallons
a day at the Oakwood Beach plant on Staten Island to
620 million gallons a day at the Newtown Creek plant in
northwest Brooklyn. And when it rains in New York City,
the surface of concrete and asphalt that covers most of
the area but absorbs no water means the sewer system
has to handle virtually all of the rain. “Almost everything
that hits the ground in some places—because of the im-
pervious factor—90 percent will end up in the sewer sys-
tem,” says William McMillin, a hydraulic engineer at the
frm CH2M HILL.
When too much water comes rushing down the drains,
it encounters devices in the sewer mains called regula-
tors, which prevent the stormwater from fooding the
sewage treatment plants. If the water level in the tunnels
gets high enough, the regulators divert water to CSO out-
fall pipes leading to the nearest river, bay, creek or canal.
“The only human factors are operators at the wastewater
treatment plants who control things there,” says McMil-
lin. “Otherwise, the system runs passively.”
Combined sewer overfows occur around 70 times a
year, according to Riverkeeper, an advocacy group for
New York’s waters. The overwhelming majority take place
during wet weather, with the rate of fow being more im-
portant than the total volume: a brief but furious rainstorm
can cause more problems than a steady, soaking rain.
Sometimes, sewage overfows occur even when
the skies are clear. Take the August 2003 blackout.
When the city’s sewage plants lost power, their ability to
City Limits investigates
10 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
process wastewater was hindered and
they began diverting some of their
intake into the waterways. In the less
than 24 hours it took for power to re-
turn, some 490 million gallons had been
released. A court later determined that
one of the city’s plants had failed to
properly operate a backup generator,
leading to a federal criminal conviction
for violating the Clean Water Act. The
city’s sentence was three years’ pro-
bation, oversight by a federal monitor
with broad powers to investigate the
city’s water and sewer systems and a
requirement to impose new safety pro-
grams. While the blackout was a top na-
tional story, massive overfows can ac-
company less heralded events: During
eight days of storms in October 2005,
some 7.5 billion gallons of combined
sewage bypassed treatment plants and
entered the city’s waterways.
Climate change could exacerbate the
crisis. With wastewater treatment plants
and their CSO outfall pipes located close
to sea level, city offcials and climatolo-
gists are worried that rising seas and
bigger storm surges might submerge
and backup key components of the sys-
tem. Adding to the risk and the uncer-
tainty are predictions of more sporadic
rain events in the future. “We’re not sure
if we should be planning for droughts or
the deluge,” says DEP Deputy Commis-
sioner Angela Licata.
III. Toxic threat
In the 1970s, federal authorities man-
dated that new sewers be laid sepa-
rately, but because its system dates
back more than 100 years, almost all
of Manhattan’s sewer pipes combine
stormwater and sewer waste. Overall,
around 70 percent of New York’s sys-
tem consists of combined pipes—the
impact of which can be seen in the wa-
ter at the end of the line.
It would be bad enough if sewer over-
fows poured only human waste into the
Bronx River, Long Island Sound, Jamai-
ca Bay and other city waterways. But
the sanitary sewer system that gathers
from toilets, sinks and bathtubs is a di-
verse mixture of unpleasantness: Along
with the bacteria in feces and urine, it
contains undigested pharmaceuticals,
blood, sanitary napkins, toxic beauty
products, dyes, cooking oil and con-
doms. Storm drains, meanwhile, scoop
up not just rainwater but also nitrogen-
loaded fertilizer, animal waste, heavy
metals from factories, chemicals from
dry-cleaning establishments and the
potato chip bags and candy wrappers
that litterbugs toss in the street.
Even if this mess were merely un-
sightly, it would be a problem. As it is,
however, that brew of bacteria, chemi-
cals and materials can damage the city’s
waterways in a host of manners. CSOs
are one of the reasons New York State
restricts fshing off New York City: The
toxins in the wastewater contaminate
aquatic animals, and can sicken people
who eat the creatures. Organic mate-
rial, like nitrogen, triggers biological
processes that deplete the water of the
dissolved oxygen that supports fsh life.
And sewage overfows dump sediment
on the foors of waterways, which can
obstruct navigation and necessitate
costly dredging.
Polluted water has the potential to
cause hepatitis, dysentery, giardia,
cryptosporidosis, e. coli, leptospirosis,
coxsackievirus, typhoid fever and chol-
era. The U.S. Environmental Protec-
tion Agency has estimated that sewage
overfows of various kinds into swim-
ming waters sicken up to 5,500 people
annually, but advocates put the total
number of people hit with some kind of
waterborne illnesses—of which CSOs
are one cause—in the millions. Esti-
mating the health toll from New York’s
ducks and
cover
Row over reservoirs
Just north of the Bronx border, New York
City’s drinking water supply bides its time
in the hillview Reservoir. having traveled
from the far reaches of the Catskills and
Delaware watersheds through a succes-
sion of aqueducts and reservoirs, the wa-
ter waits in the 929 million gallon pool
before it moves into the three water tun-
nels that service every main in the fve bor-
oughs. The fat expanse of water and its
buffer zone of trees are a tranquil spot just
yards from the New York State Thruway,
the oblong track at Yonkers Raceway and
the suburban layout of southern Yonkers.
It is also the subject of a 14-year dispute
that now pits New York City against the
Environmental Protection Agency in fed-
eral court—with environmental advocates
choosing sides.
New York City’s drinking water drains
from a watershed that is roughly the size
of the state of Delaware, encompass-
ing eight Empire State counties and part
of the state of Connecticut. East of the
hudson is the older and smaller Croton
system. Water from the far larger Catskills
and Delaware watersheds starts west of
the hudson, travels through aqueducts to
the Kensico Reservoir in Valhalla and then
fows down to the hillview. Normally, the
Catskills/Delaware system serves about 90
percent of city water needs. But because
of work on the Croton system, from 2006
to the present, virtually every drop of tap
water consumed in the city (except for the
roughly one percent provided by a system
of wells in Queens) has passed through
the hillview.
There are two ways to make water
safe for drinking: disinfection (which adds
chemicals or ultraviolet light to the water to
kill pathogens) and fltration, in which the
water passes through a plant that screens
out the bad stuff. While New York adds
chlorine to disinfect Catskills/Delaware
water, the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency does not require the city to flter it
because the water source is so clean. New
York’s lack of fltering is rare: New York City
“We’re not sure if we should be planning for droughts or the
deluge,” says DEP Deputy Commissioner Angela Licata.
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 11
sewage overfow is diffcult because
people who travel abroad or engage
in risky sex have opportunities to
be exposed to the same diseases as
people who’ve had contact with bad
water here. But environmental groups
worry that the danger from CSOs
will grow as “superbugs” like SARS
emerge, exit people’s bodies and end
up in the sewage.
Overfows are already affecting life
in the city. Because rain can cause
both storm runoff and combined sew-
age overfows, city beaches employ
a warning system linked to precipita-
tion. When rainfall intensities exceed
limits set each season, the Department
of Health and Mental Hygiene warns
swimmers not to dive in. Because of
where CSOs are located and how water
fows, the thresholds vary by beach: A
wet-weather warning kicks in at Mid-
land Beach in Staten Island whenever
there is more than an inch and a half
of rain within six hours, but at private
beaches in the Bronx, the trigger is a
mere 0.2 inches in two hours.
In 2006, New York City beaches is-
sued 265 “Wet Weather Advisories”—
52 percent more than in 2005. But while
beach users are alerted to the risks of
sewage outfalls, other New Yorkers—
like boaters, for example—get little
warning other than the rectangular
green signs that state law requires at
each of the city’s hundreds of outfalls.
Among other policies to reduce the im-
pact of CSOs, advocates are pressing
for a better warning system.
Of course, sewage pipes aren’t the
only source of contamination for New
York’s rivers and bays. When it rains,
runoff can fow directly off land into the
water, bypassing the sewer system alto-
gether. And the air itself can deposit ma-
terials that have been emitted by factory
smokestacks or car tailpipes, like mercu-
ry and particulate matter. Despite these
challenges, and thanks to a concerted
effort by citizen groups and—eventu-
ally—the government, the health of
New York Harbor has improved greatly
over the past 30 years, with a signifcant
reduction in bacteria and an overall
uses about 80 percent of the unfltered drink-
ing water consumed in the United States. The
EPA recently announced a 10-year deal to al-
low New York to continue using unfltered wa-
ter from the Catskills/Delaware system (see“A
Passing FAD,” p.12).
But while the EPA is satisfed with the qual-
ity of the water that enters the hillview, it is
not confdent in the water that fows out. The
agency believes that clean water from the
city’s watershed can get contaminated as it
sits in Yonkers. In early 2006, the EPA issued
a set of rules for protecting drinking water in
unfltered, uncovered reservoirs like hillview
from cryptosporidium—a parasite that comes
from human and animal waste, causes severe
diarrhea and has no known cure, making it
dangerous for children, the elderly and people
with immune problems caused by hIV/AIDS or
chemotherapy. In 1993, a crypto outbreak in
Milwaukee sickened 400,000 people, leading
Congress to call for stricter measures to elimi-
nate the parasite—which resists standard
chlorine disinfection—from drinking water.
The EPA believes that since small animals and
birds can get close to uncovered reservoirs like
hillview and infect the water with their waste,
such reservoirs are at risk for crypto. The new
rules say those reservoirs must either be cov-
ered or have their water fltered before it gets
into people’s homes.
Days after the EPA issued those rules, New
York City and Portland, Ore. sued the agency.
The heart of New York’s case is that the new
federal regulations “vastly overestimated the
risk of cryptosporidium” and understated
the costs of compliance. “In particular,” the
city’s suit claims, “EPA greatly overestimated
the number of people who will become ill or
die from cryptosporidiosis, thus overstating
the threat of cryptosporidium to the public
health.” The city—which tracks emergency
room visits, lab reports and even drug store
sales of anti-diarrhea medication in order to
detect outbreaks of crypto—says it recorded
only one death from the disease from 1998 to
2003. The city and the feds can’t even agree
on how many people died in that ‘93 Milwau-
kee outbreak: While EPA reports 100 deaths
New York puts the number closer to 50.
Data suggests that the risk from crypto is
fairly slight. In 1999 and 2000, the two most
recent years covered by federal disease sta-
tistics, only fve confrmed cases of drinking
water-related cryptosporidium were report-
ed nationwide.
The city says it would be impossible to flter
the water at hillview. The Department of En-
vironmental Protection (DEP) is already build-
ing the world’s largest ultraviolet disinfection
plant to treat for crypto beginning in 2012, but
that $1.1 billion project is located upstream in
Mount Pleasant and Greenburg. And, the city
says, since there’s no room for a fltration facil-
ity south of hillview, the new EPA rules mean
the city would have no choice but to cover the
reservoir at a cost of as much as $800 million.
A cover would apparently have been
cheaper 14 years ago, when the EPA frst
began pushing the city to cover the reservoir
and the Dinkins administration budgeted
$177 million for a cover to be installed as ear-
ly as 1997. The case for a cover grew stronger
when hillview’s water tested positive for co-
liform, a bacteria that indicates the presence
of animal waste. The city and state pinned the
fecal fndings on birds making pit-stops on
the water.
In 1996, DEP and the state Department of
health signed an administrative order calling
for a cover, and the city paid an engineering
frm $4.6 million to design one. Amended
twice, the administrative order set a deadline
of December 21, 2005 for a cover—which
came and went. In recent public reports, DEP
says it is talking with the state about an exten-
sion. But in the suit against the EPA, DEP is
arguing that it doesn’t need to cover hillview
at all. “We’re in fact planning and doing the
engineering to cover it but we would like not
to have to cover it,” says DEP Deputy Commis-
sioner Angela Licata.
What’s interesting is that some environ-
mentalists—who often call on the EPA to get
tougher on New York—are siding with the city
on this one.
For advocates and the city, the question is
whether to spend millions on a cover for hill-
view or use the money to fund other steps to
prevent infection upstream. “I haven’t seen
any compelling water quality data that sug-
gests to me that far less expensive, less intru-
sive strategies—including steps to prevent
geese and other wildlife from defecating in
hillview—aren’t as effective as what EPA has
been proposing,” says James Tripp, general
counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund
who also serves as chairman of the city’s Wa-
ter Board. “I just think there are far better uses
of DEP’s capital.”
—JARRETT MURPhY
City Limits investigates
12 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
increase in the amount of dissolved oxy-
gen on which fsh depend.
But in that context, the impact of
today’s sewage overfows and tomor-
row’s potential ones looms ever larger.
According to DEP’s 2005 Harbor Water
Quality Report, CSOs are now the great-
est source of bacteria to the harbor. The
report also found that in the Upper East
River, while the 2005 average readings
for dissolved oxygen were better than
in 2004, they were also more prone to
extremes: More instances of extremely
low oxygen levels were recorded over a
wider regional area in 2005 than in the
previous 10 years.
Water advocates argue that even
those fgures understate the sewage
overfow problem. The advocacy group
Riverkeeper, for one, claims that the
DEP “samples water quality far less fre-
quently than the minimum required by
law” and locates its sampling stations
in the middle of the Hudson’s stream,
relatively far from the mouth of the out-
put pipe. That’s despite some evidence
that “plumes” of pollutants hug close to
the outfalls.
T
he scale of New York’s sewage
problem can be hard to grasp. But
other large municipalities—especially
those without combined sewer sys-
tems—offer some perspective. When
Los Angeles with its separate sewage
system experienced a 2 million gallon
spill in early 2006, it was declared “the
largest sewage spill in Los Angeles
County in a decade.” At New York City’s
annual overfow rate, 2 million gallons is
what gets spilled in about 39 minutes.
It helps to see the problem up close,
which is what two scientists from Co-
lumbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Obser-
vatory were doing one dazzling day in
May, when they climbed aboard a 36-
foot motor craft piloted by Riverkeep-
er’s John Lipscomb and shoved off from
an East Side marina with a truckload of
equipment aboard. Greg O’Mullan and
Eli Dueker were there to gather sam-
ples of water from Newtown Creek—the
notoriously dirty ribbon of water that
separates Brooklyn from Queens at the
a passing Fad
The watershed wish list
DEP has more than sewers on its mind. This
spring, federal regulators handed New York
City a multibillion-dollar gift: a decision allow-
ing the city to keep using unfltered drinking
water from its Catskill/Delaware watershed
and avoid—at least for now—building a
fltration plant that would cost around $8
billion. EPA’s “fltration avoidance determina-
tion,” or FAD, which is usually tendered for
only fve years, instead offers New York City
10 years of flter-free pumping. The city hailed
it as a victory and a vindication of their efforts
to protect the city’s drinking supply.
But in its fne print, the FAD actually re-
quires New York City to settle some vexing
issues before 2012 in order to maintain its
exemption from fltration, and those require-
ments are just some of the challenges facing
the city’s mammoth watershed:
turbidity: The Catskill Mountains, from
which about 40 percent of the city’s water
fows, have a geology rich in silts and clays,
which when captured in runoff from rain get
suspended in the water of New York City’s
reservoirs and turn the water cloudy or tur-
bid. While turbidity is not itself dangerous, it
can hamper efforts to disinfect water of other
contaminants. To reduce turbidity in the Ken-
sico Reservoir, where Catskills water stops
before fowing toward the metropolis, the
city in 2005 began adding signifcant doses
of alum, a chemical that attaches to the sedi-
ments and helps sink them to the bottom of
the reservoir, so they do not enter the pipe
that leads to customers’ taps.
The problem is that alum might have an
effect on aquatic life, especially the tiny ben-
thic creatures that live in the bottom reaches
of reservoirs and are the foundation of the
fsh food chain. When the city’s Department
of Environmental Protection (DEP) applied to
the state in the mid-1990s for approval to add
alum to the Croton system, the request was
denied. But the state Department of health
(DOh) allowed the city to use alum in the
Catskills/Delaware system on more than 300
days in 2005 and 2006.
Adding alum “results in the settling of
alum sludge . . . which has prompted the
state to require dredging,” say the EPA—
which cited the Catskills system for excessive
turbidity as recently as May 2006—in the re-
cent FAD. “EPA and [DOh] do not believe that
DEP should rely extensively or exclusively on
this alum treatment practice to control tur-
bidity.” The EPA goes on to say that “signif-
cant improvement” in New York’s turbidity
control “is required in order to maintain fl-
tration avoidance for the long term.” The city
is surveying the Kensico in order to dredge it,
and has found that in one area the sediment
is as deep as 6 feet. Dredging, however, often
raises other environmental concerns.
Meanwhile, the city faces a new chapter in
a long court fght over the way the city trans-
ports water into the Esopus Creek, a con-
nector between the Schoharie and Ashokan
Reservoirs in the Catskills/Delaware system.
In the late 1990s a lawsuit by advocates and
fshermen claimed that water coming out of
a city tunnel and into Esopus Creek was tur-
bid, ruining fshing. The case began in federal
court, where a judge in 2003 ordered the city
to pay a $5.5 million penalty for violating the
Clean Water Act by failing to get a permit for
use of the creek, a fnding that the city ap-
pealed without success to the U.S. Supreme
Court. Now the legal battle has moved to
state court with a dispute over whether the
permit the city fnally obtained requires suf-
fcient steps to prevent turbidity.
Watershed laNd: The most crucial part
of New York City’s fltration avoidance is the
city’s massive effort to protect land around
the watershed, either by buying properties
outright or paying landowners to adopt
practices intended to limit harmful runoff.
Since 1996, the city has more than tripled
its land holdings in the Catskills/Delaware
watershed, increasing its share of the land
from 3 percent to roughly 11 percent. But
the city had to make offers to buy more than
380,000 acres to secure the 77,000 acres it
purchased. Under the new FAD, the city is
required to solicit 50,000 acres annually and
spend $264 million on land purchases over
the next 10 years.
One challenge facing the city is the competi-
tion for high-priority watershed lands—those
closest to the water and most vulnerable to
development. A proposal to build a major re-
sort, called Belleayre, in the Catskills already
has developers and opponents in talks aimed
at reducing the impact of the project.
iNfrastruCture: While the FAD allows
New York City to save the billions that a new
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 13
western end of Long Island—and the
East River. Their goal was to measure
and, later on, model what was happen-
ing beneath the water’s surface, where
industrial runoff and sewage overfows
mix into the system of plants, microbes
and other aquatic life that make the wa-
ter home.
As the boat slipped into the creek, a
pump sucked water into an instrument
that detected salinity, temperature, pH
and, most importantly, dissolved oxy-
gen content. When pollutants like nitro-
gen are washed into a waterbody, they
trigger blooms of algae that produce
oxygen through photosynthesis. As the
algae die, however, the decomposition
process depletes oxygen in the water—
which is bad news for fsh.
As O’Mullan and Dueker dipped
sampling jars into the drink, a GPS
device mapped exactly where each
sample was taken—an important con-
sideration, since the levels of dissolved
oxygen fuctuated wildly in just a few
yards. Close to the mouth of the creek,
the levels shot to over 150 percent, indi-
cating that the water was saturated with
oxygen—possibly because a bloom of
algae was taking place, generating a
surplus of O
2
.
Since low dissolved oxygen is a threat
to fsh, the high oxygen levels were a
good thing. But O’Mullan warned that
episodes of very high oxygen are often
followed by extremely low readings,
because all the algae that are created
by the surge eventually die, triggering
a massive decomposition that sucks
oxygen out of the water. Indeed, as
the creek turned under Metropolitan
Avenue, the oxygen levels dropped to
37 percent. “That’s a very stressful en-
vironment,” O’Mullan observed as he
read off the numbers. “That’s almost
fsh-kill level.” Dueker’s seen that kind
of variation in his own studies of micro-
bial life in the Gowanus Canal; in three
or four hours, he says, the number of
bacteria can change dramatically. That
sort of volatility—and the fact that even
the occasional high or low reading can
have devastating impacts on aquatic
life—makes testing diffcult. “That’s
fltration plant would cost, it also calls for
the city to complete a lengthy list of capital
projects throughout the sprawling water-
shed system. DEP—whose massive capital
program is already leading to substantial
water rate increases for city residents—will
be required to complete sewer projects in
16 towns and upgrade 20 wastewater treat-
ment plants under the FAD. Several stream
management projects, the dredging of the
Schoharie Reservoir and the construction of
an ultraviolet disinfection plant (now sched-
uled to open three years late, in 2012) are
also on the $1.4 billion to-do list.
But DEP’s capital projects, which total
$19.5 billion over the next 10 years, don’t end
with the FAD. Besides continuing work on Wa-
ter Tunnel No. 3 (due in 2020) and completing
the Croton fltration plant (now about $1
billion over budget), DEP must contemplate
what to do about the Delaware Aqueduct, the
85-mile pipe from the Castkills to the Kensico
that is leaking up to 36 million gallons of
water a day; studies and preparations alone
will run $668 million. And while DEP has com-
pleted emergency repairs to the Gilboa Dam
in the Catskills, more work is scheduled there
and on other dams, roads and bridges total-
ing $827 million.
Looming behind those challenges to the
integrity of New York City’s water delivery sys-
tem is the prospect of climate change, which
could bring higher temperatures that evapo-
rate reservoirs faster, erratic rainstorms that
wash more runoff into the system and sea
level changes that push salt water further up
the hudson River.
oversight: The EPA was to transfer over-
sight duties for New York City’s watershed to
DOh on May 15 but has delayed the move for
unspecifed reasons. While environmental ad-
vocates have expressed doubts that the DOh
has the staff to handle the task, and DOh in-
sists it does, offcials in Delaware County have
a different gripe: They want the EPA to hand
off authority to Albany so the county can use
state laws to challenge the FAD, which county
offcials want to restrict to fve years. A county
resolution passed in April says the city’s use
of the lands it has purchased “has diminished
tourism and economic development in the
watershed,” and the county is hoping to block
future purchases.
EPA might still tinker with the fnal form of
the FAD, as public comments were being ac-
cepted into June. Environmental advocates gen-
erally see the FAD as a good thing: The threat of
having to spend billions to flter its water, they
say, forces the city to protect the watershed in
cheaper ways—for the time being.
Much depends, however, on what happens
between now and 2012. “As the draft is writ-
ten, it’s a 10-year land acquisition commit-
ment, but pretty much everything else is, ‘We’ll
assess it in fve years and then commit to an-
other fve-year program,’ “ says Riverkeeper’s
Leila Goldmark. “It’s leaving a big door open
for them to ditch programs in fve years.”
—JARRETT MURPhY
Bloomberg and then-DEP head Ward tour Tunnel No. 3 in 2003. Photo: City Hall
wasTe To The
BoTTom
How much is the
27 billion gallons of
untreated wastewater
New York City
discharges each year?
It is . . .
Suffcient to sink the Titanic
on 779 nights to remember.
City Limits investigates
14 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
the key reason why the average isn’t
any good [as an indicator],” says Lip-
scomb. “Extremes kill everything.”
As the boat makes one more stop in
the creek, at a point where the Empire
State Building is framed by the huge
tanks of the city’s biggest sewage treat-
ment plant, O’Mullan is careful to put
on gloves before he dips in a bottle to
get a sample. “Usually the gloves are
to protect a sample from me,” he says.
“Here, they’re to protect me from the
sample.” There are a lot of sources for
the pollution in Newtown Creek, but
the city’s sewage system is a leading
one, says Lipscomb. “The headwater of
Newtown Creek,” he says, “is a CSO.”
S
ome waterways are affected by
CSOs more than others. Newtown
Creek is hit hard in part because it gets
very little circulation from the East Riv-
er, trapping toxins in its channel. The
historically polluted Gowanus Canal
suffers from the same problem, so DEP
is currently experimenting with a me-
chanical pumping system to do for the
canal what nature can’t. And all sewage
outfalls aren’t equal: Some discharge
almost nothing, while others spew out
more than a billion gallons a year. Dif-
ferences in individual pipes refect the
plants that feed them. The city’s 14 sew-
age plants serve various populations
(90,000 use the Rockaway plant, while
more than a million people fush into
the Newtown Creek facility) and drain
different-sized areas (Red Hook han-
dles 3,200 acres to the Jamaica plant’s
25,000). The number of industrial us-
ers, who can contribute heavy chemi-
cals to the waste stream, varies quite a
bit too: DEP identifed 155 “signifcant
industrial users” in the North River
sewershed for the West Side of Man-
hattan, but only one for the Oakwood
Beach plant in Staten Island.
The scientists at Columbia’s Lamont-
Doherty facility join a long line of ex-
perts who’ve been trying to get a han-
dle on the role that CSOs play in the
health of city waterways. Water testing
by the joint New York/New Jersey Har-
bor Contamination Assessment and Re-
duction Project found in 2003 that mer-
cury output at several city CSOs was
hundreds or even thousands of times
higher than water quality standards al-
low. PCB levels were even worse, and
readings for those and other pollutants
tended to be higher by orders of magni-
tude at CSOs than at other spots in the
harbor.
Of the thirty-odd New York City wa-
terways that are on the state’s lengthy
watch list of impaired waterbodies, at
least 20 are listed as having CSO prob-
lems. Working for DEP, the consultancy
HydroQual found that almost all water-
ways that receive pollution from CSOs
violated state standards for dissolved
oxygen and, in most cases, also for lev-
els of coliform, a bacteria found in ani-
mal waste. Alan Gentile, New York City
Issues Coordinator for the Metropoli-
tan Waterfront Alliance, an umbrella
group for a burgeoning network of lo-
cal waterfront organizations, has called
CSOs “the single largest cause of New
York City’s surface water quality degra-
dation.” Indeed, one study of the Hud-
son-Raritan estuary blamed CSOs for
89 percent of the fecal bacteria found in
the water.
IV. A rising tide
It’s fair to say that New York City
has not always been at the forefront of
clean water efforts. In 1992, it was the
last municipality in the United States to
cease ocean dumping, and did so under
threat of massive federal fnes. It’s tak-
en two court orders to get the city to ad-
dress its nitrogen problem (see “Is this
the n?,” p.6) and separate regulatory
actions to force New York to flter some
of its drinking water and consider cov-
ering an exposed reservoir (see “Ducks
and Cover,” p.10).
The problem of reducing combined
sewage overfows has also been the
subject of legal action over the past two
decades, but concerns about CSOs date
back further. In the 1950s, CSOs were
dubbed “marginal pollution” but recog-
nized as a major problem, so the city be-
gan planning 25 retention basins to hold
Enough to fill the Empire
State Building some 98
times. The volume of gaso-
line the United States
consumes in 70 days. Equal to
47 hours’ worth of Hudson
River fow. What it would
take to fll 27 Central Park
Reservoirs. The
amount of total sewage
New York City generates in
21 days. Seventeen billion low-
flow toilet flushes. More
water than you would use if you
lived for 739,726 years.
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 16
sewage overfow during rainstorms
until treatment plants could handle the
fow. While major investment in such
tanks was planned, only one was ever
completed—the Spring Creek facility in
Jamaica Bay—in part because federal
water regulations forced DEP to turn
its attention and dollars elsewhere.
By 1992, New York City’s sewage
overfows were in violation of state
pollution permits covering wastewater
plants, so the city and state agreed to
an administrative order that included
a timetable for building facilities to re-
duce the spills and required the city to
capture 70 percent of its wet weather
fow. Two years later, the EPA estab-
lished a national sewage overfow pol-
icy that imposed its own schedule for
New York City to meet.
Over time and under legal pressure,
New York City has made real progress
on CSOs, increasing the share of wet-
weather sewage it treats from less than
30 percent in 1989 (when the city was
dumping about 200 million gallons a
day into the Hudson alone) to more
than 72 percent today. DEP has also
worked to reduce the toxicity of storm-
water runoff with a program that edu-
cates businesses about how to reduce
their pollution. A separate DEP initia-
tive, mandated by the EPA, requires
certain industries (like metal fnishers
and pharmaceutical companies) to treat
their wastewater before it goes to city
sewers and has dramatically reduced
pollution from those businesses.
But the city did not meet the mile-
stones set out in the 1992 consent
order, so state regulators upped the
pressure and in 2004 the city and state
agreed to another consent order that
fned the city $2 million and requires
the completion of some 30 abatement
projects, from “off-line retention tanks”
to “vortex concentrators,” costing more
than $2.2 billion.
Since then, “the performance under
the order to date has been excellent,”
says Joseph DiMura, director of the
state Department of Environmental
Conservation’s Bureau of Water Com-
pliance. DiMura says the city has met
110 of 215 milestones in the order,
which also called on the city to prepare
individual plans for each of the water
networks within its borders. The drafts
were fled in June. The fnal plans aren’t
expected for 10 years.
Advocates are concerned about what
happens in the interim. Many saw the
2004 deal as deeply fawed, since it
doesn’t require the city to meet federal
water quality standards—the 1994 EPA
policy, for example, called for 85 percent
wet-weather capture, but the consent or-
der only mandates 75.5 percent. And the
order also allowed the city to delay its
compliance with any standards as long
as it keeps working on the abatement
projects. At the time, Councilmember
David Yassky called the deal “a setback
for a cleaner environment.”
E
ven as regulatory attention to
CSOs has intensifed, the city has
backed away from the heart of its capi-
tal program to reduce the overfows.
The 1992 consent order called for the
construction of eight underground
storage tanks to hold wet-weather wa-
ter until treatment plants could handle
it. The 2004 order decreased that to
six tanks. Four tanks (at Flushing Bay,
Paerdegat Basin, Alley Creek and New-
town Creek) now remain on the draw-
ing board; projects on the Hutchinson
River and Westchester Creek have
been scuttled.
Even those projects that the city does
still intend to complete are unlikely to
come on line—and start preventing
overfows—for a good long time, if pre-
vious projects are any indication. The
Flushing detention tank, for example, is
years behind schedule: The Consent Or-
der schedule notes a construction com-
pletion date of August 2001, but DEP
said that the tank was going through
fnal testing only last month. City off-
cials were talking about the Paerdegat
project as far back as 1989; it’s currently
scheduled for completion in 2011.
Meanwhile, other cities can already
point to large brick-and-mortar efforts
to prevent sewage overfows. Chicago,
while simultaneously implementing the
most substantial green infrastructure
network in the country, has also been
working for 30 years on a $3 billion deep
tunnel system that, when completed in
2014, will consist of 109 miles of under-
ground chambers capable of retaining
18 billion gallons.
But it’s no mystery why DEP would
rather build fewer retention tanks. For
one thing, they can engender stiff com-
munity opposition. Who wants to live
near a massive holding tank for human
waste? An even more daunting factor is
the cost. The Paerdegat and Flushing
facilities (with 50 million gallons and 43
million gallons capacity, respectively)
each have a price tag of approximately
$300 million. DEP Deputy Commis-
sioner Steven Lawitts, who oversees all
the agency’s capital projects, has told
the City Council that by 2005, “DEP
had concluded that the enormous cost
of these detention tanks far outweighed
the localized water quality improve-
ment afforded by the tanks.” The
tanks—though huge—would not be
able to capture the runoff from all CSO
pipes in their respective areas, restrict-
ing their beneft to their immediate
waters. In nearby open waters, Lawitts
said, “the [tanks’] water quality impact
is not signifcant.”
The cost argument against big tanks
has been brewing for years. Christo-
pher Ward, a DEP commissioner from
April 2002 to November 2004 who now
. . . it’s no mystery why DEP would rather build fewer
retention tanks. For one thing, they usually engender stiff
community opposition. Who wants to live near a massive
holding tank for human waste?
riskY waTers
Rate reform realities
Customers might feel differently when they
get their next bills, but Fitch Ratings was
pleased when contemplating the 11.5 per-
cent rise in water rates approved by the New
York City Water Board in May. “Annual rate
hikes are likely,” Fitch said in its report to
potential investors in New York City water
bonds, “but rates should remain competitive
with other urban systems, and affordable for
the broad customer base with its above-av-
erage income characteristics.”
Indeed, annual hikes are likely—the Water
Board is predicting that this year’s increase
will be followed by boosts of 11.5 percent in
2008, 11.4 percent in 2009 and 11.3 percent
in 2010, for a 54 percent increase over the
next four years to cover the swelling costs
of reducing CSOs, protecting the watershed
and reducing nitrogen releases in the water-
ways. Those steep hikes have set off a call for
change in the way the city charges for water.
But any changes—like the leading proposal,
from Comptroller William Thompson—will
have to contend with the rules and whims of
the bond market.
The case for change is simple: While the
Water Board argues that as a percentage of
the city’s median income, New York’s water
charges are among the lowest of 24 large
cities it surveyed, the vast income disparities
in the city mean water is dearer to some city
residents than others. Research by the Univer-
sity Neighborhood housing Program (UNhP)
shows that when Bronx neighborhoods are
compared to other large cities, residents of
Mott haven and Morrisania are paying a
greater share of their income for water than
the average resident of any major U.S. city. The
average New York customer, who now pays
$677, will pay $966 a year in 2011. A few hun-
dred bucks a year for water might seem like
a puny share of take-home pay, but coupled
with high fuel prices, rising tax assessments
and creeping interest rates, soaring water
charges tighten the squeeze on homeowners
who are barely making it. “This is the thing
that could push folks right off the edge,” says
Jim Buckley, UNhP’s executive director.
Not that Buckley blames the rate makers
for approving this year’s increase. “The sys-
tem, as it’s set up, there’s no option for the
Water Board,” he says.
The system dates to 1984, when the state
legislature created the New York City Water
Finance Authority to sell bonds to pay for im-
provements to the water and sewage system.
The Water Board, an entity separate from the
Water Finance Authority, was charged with
setting water rates. The city’s Department of
Environmental Protection (DEP), meanwhile,
continued to operate the water and sewer
system, so the Water Board agreed in 1985
to pay the city for use of DEP’s pipes, plants
and reservoirs. For a number of years, that
rent was pegged to the outstanding city
bonds for water and sewer work. But as
that general obligation debt dwindled over
the years, the rent to the city became based
instead on the size of the Water Finance
Authority’s own debt burden.
That means water ratepayers aren’t just
paying off water bonds and funding the
operation of DEP’s water and sewer sys-
tem—they’re paying into the city’s general
fund under a 22-year-old agreement that
was signed before new federal water rules
forced DEP capital spending up to $19.5 bil-
lion over the next 10 years. Ironically, New
Yorkers are paying a higher water rate now
because they’re using less water than in the
past: Since people are washing and fushing
less, the cost per fush has to go up to cover
rising capital costs.
The water money going into the city’s gen-
eral fund totals $77 million this year, and will
rise to $175 million in 2011, according to the
comptroller’s offce. With the city boasting a
multi-billion dollar surplus and ratepayers
facing four years of double digit water rate
hikes, that rental payment came under scru-
tiny this spring. “It’s not sustainable, not a
way to raise revenues for the general fund,”
says City Councilmember James Gennaro,
chairman of the Environmental Protection
Committee, who adds that the city’s pro-
gressive tax system is what ought to be used
to raise money for the regular budget, “not
regressive water payments blind to what we
make for a living and everything else.”
In April, Gennaro and Councilmember Da-
vid Weprin suggested eliminating the rental
payment. But the fnances of the New York
City water system aren’t only of interest to
ratepayers and councilmembers. Bond buyers
and rating agencies also pay close attention.
As the city began marketing a new set of wa-
ter bonds worth $400,000,000 in late May,
Fitch Ratings gave those bonds an AA rating,
City Limits investigates
16 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
heads the city’s General Contractors
Association, says that during his time as
commissioner it became clear that “you
need to break out of the pipe and ce-
ment solutions for CSOs as a long-term
planning alternative.” He said DEP ana-
lysts found that the greater strides they
made toward controlling overfows, the
more expensive additional improve-
ment became. “Spending $320 million
and not moving perceptibly forward
seems to me misguided,” Ward says.
“How much more should you spend to
get the last 5, 6, 7 percent of water qual-
ity beneft?” he asks. “Every dollar that
you spend is not the same.”
Environmental watchdogs would
agree—to a point. They’ve long been
skeptical that big capital projects were
the best way to mitigate the stormwa-
ter problem, arguing that there are
more cost-effective methods to control
sewage overfows. But while environ-
mental advocates might be pleased
that the city is moving away from tradi-
tional, capital-intensive solutions to the
CSO problem, they aren’t necessarily
thrilled with the alternatives DEP has
proposed. The agency’s new projects
might be smaller and cheaper, but ad-
vocates still think the city is approach-
ing the sewage overfow problem from
the wrong end of the pipe.
The list of overfow abatement proj-
ects now underway include installing
nets and booms to capture material as
it spills out of sewage overfow pipes,
increasing the capacity of the city’s larg-
est plant at Newtown Creek and the
creation of more holding capacity inside
sewage pipes and treatment plants. Oth-
er efforts include gathering so-called
“foatables,” like litter, before they get to
the outfalls, and staggering the fow of
wastewater to increase the amount that
plants can handle. Another initiative in-
cludes monitoring beaches to catch and
stop illegal sewer connections.
That menu of solutions still focuses
on what happens to the rain after it
gets to the drains—not beforehand. By
concentrating its efforts there, DEP is
limiting the effectiveness of its CSO
program, advocates say. “These end-
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 17
of-pipe projects cannot and are not in-
tended or designed to eliminate com-
bined sewer overfows or allow the city
to meet water quality standards,” says
a recent report from Riverkeeper.
V. Which end of the pipe?
A different approach would be to try
to divert water from ever getting into
the sewage system—to stop it at its
source with specially designed roofs,
rain barrels, trees, porous surfaces and
other methods; in other words, to go
“green.” Green processes pit nature’s
adaptive strength against the very man-
made forces that threaten it. Riverkeep-
er attorney Robert Goldstein recalls a
recent sewage spill in Yonkers: “There
was a wetland between the break and
the river, and it didn’t mean much to
me at the time, but everything that
came out of that sewer pipe went into
this wetland,” he says. “Our boat tested
right outside the break and found no
elevated levels [of fecal bacteria]. It’s a
miracle, but it’s not a miracle. This is
what nature’s function is.”
New York City, like all urban areas,
has a high percentage of impervious
surface cover; it is the “Asphalt Jungle”
of noir cinema fame. The concrete and
asphalt that coat much of the city es-
sentially act as an umbrella channeling
rainfall off to the edges and inhibiting
the soil’s natural function of absorption.
In a recent study by the Earth Institute
of Columbia University, scientists broke
down the city’s cover using advanced
mapping techniques and revealed that
the city’s surface is, on average, 64.1
percent impervious, from a high of 94.3
percent in mid-Manhattan west to a low
of 60.2 percent in Maspeth, Queens.
Green approaches focus on turn-
ing the city’s impervious surfaces into
sponges for rainwater. Green roofs use
vegetation and porous material to cap-
ture the rain that falls on them. The ab-
sorptive power of the soil acts as a cru-
cial delaying mechanism to keep water
out of the sewer system until the storm
passes. While there is certainly a limit
to how much water green roofs can
hold—especially during long storms—
depending on their thickness, they can
prevent 80 percent of runoff during a
typical rain event, says Leslie Hoffman,
executive director of Earth Pledge, a
group that promotes green roofs. The
ability of plants to breathe water vapor
back into the atmosphere, a process
known as evapotranspiration, means
that they are functioning essentially as
miniature, living stormwater retention
tanks and treatment plants.
While green roofs—a few of which
can be found in the city—can cost $20
to $40 a square foot to install (compared
to traditional roofs than run $4 to $6 a
square foot) their effciency can be re-
markable. A recent report by Riverkeep-
er—one cited by PlaNYC—claims that
“for every $1,000 invested in new green
roof construction, up to 810 gallons of
stormwater can be removed from the
sewer system every year.” The report—
which claims that there are 16,000 acres
of “potentially eligible” fat roofs in the
city—suggests that green roofs could
capture 13 billion gallons of runoff, or
about half the city’s annual CSO output,
at a far lower cost than building reten-
tion tanks to hold all that water.
Other technologies, like tree pits that
feature expanded absorption basins and
rain barrels that capture water for use
in backyard irrigation are what CSO re-
duction advocates are seeking to deploy
on a mass scale to make up for the built
just shy of the highest grade. Other rating
agencies also rate Water Finance Author-
ity debt highly—in some cases, higher
than New York City’s general obligation
bonds. Those high ratings, which save
ratepayers money because they allow the
Water Finance Authority to pay a lower
interest rate, are a reward for the careful
way in which the city pledges its water
fees. Under New York City Water Finance
Authority bond covenants, money from
ratepayers goes to bondholders frst, then
to DEP to pay for operations and then in
rent to the city’s general fund. So the rent
payment serves as a cushion. Should wa-
ter fees fall off one year, the rent payment
could go to bondholders.
Removing that cushion would have to
be done carefully. Any reduction in the
protection for bondholders could spook
rating agencies and investors, and since
the Water Finance Authority is pledged
to defend the interests of bondholders, it
might even have to sue the Water Board
to protect investors. The need to keep
the market happy is why Thompson, in
proposing a way to lower water rates,
says the Water Board should still collect
the rent payment, but agree to have the
city rebate the rent so the board can ap-
ply it to reducing future rate hikes. Such
an approach might actually improve the
city’s bond outlook, says analyst Megan
Neuburger from Fitch. “If there was more
of that money to pay for capital improve-
ments, debt service would be better,” she
says, “so it would be a positive for the
Water Board monetarily.”
But making the change depends on
getting the parties to the 1985 agree-
ment—namely City hall and the Water
Board—to endorse it, and that would
mean the city agreeing to millions of
dollars in lost revenue. City hall did
not respond to requests for comment.
At the Water Board’s May 14 meeting,
Chairman James Tripp said it was time
to try. “I intend to pursue this issue with
a vengeance,” he said. “In my view, the
continuation of the rental agreement is
simply not satisfactory. We’re going to
do something about it.”
A few minutes later, the board approved
the 11.5 percent increase unanimously.
—JARRETT MURPhY
DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd oversees
operations spanning 13 counties and serving
more than 9 million people. Photo: City Hall
A pioneering green building, the Solaire, can reuse 25,000 gallons of water a day. A city pro-
gram is trying to encourage other buildings to follow suit. Photo: Jeff Goldberg, ©Esto Photographers
City Limits investigates
18 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
environment’s lack of absorption. They
are also seeking to replace portions of
traditional concrete sidewalks—that
together with streets make up 45.9 per-
cent of the city’s impervious cover, ac-
cording to the Columbia report—with
porous pavement, an emerging green
technology being adopted across the
country for its dramatic ability to hold
and flter water underground rather
than leave it scurrying downhill toward
the nearest gutter. A study by hydrolo-
gist and engineer Franco Montalto, a
Columbia University research fellow,
analyzed the water-holding perfor-
mance of an absorptive sidewalk and
found that “there would be no annual
runoff from this confguration porous
pavement, i.e. there would be 100 per-
cent reduction in annual runoff, over
the imperviously paved condition.” To
bolster this incredible fnding, the re-
port asks its readers to “note that near
100 percent runoff capture is common-
ly reported for porous pavement instal-
lations.” A project in Seattle that uses
a similar approach has found over two
years that stormwater runoff has been
reduced by 99 percent.
While porous pavement is a new ap-
proach, old-fashioned tree planting also
holds water. The ability of plants to absorb
volumes of water greater than their sur-
face areas—10 times or more greater in
the case of some water-retaining Green-
streets, the pocket parks often found on
traffc medians—are what make them
highly desirable for CSO abatement in a
compact urban environment. New York’s
trees absorb more than 890 million gal-
lons of stormwater each year, according
to the Parks Department’s 2005-2006
Street Tree Census.
Since green methods make use of
stormwater rather than fushing it down
the drain, they eliminate ineffcien-
cies in the water system. Rather than
treating rainwater and then having to
provide it to the homeowner for water-
ing the tomatoes, green methods aim
to capture the water for use before it
enters the sewage system. The ecologi-
cal benefts are myriad. Not only does
less stormwater overfow into city wa-
terways through CSO outfalls, but less
gets treated at the plants, too—which
is good because treated water is dosed
with chlorine, which can be toxic, and
is fresh water, which can alter the sa-
linity of some city waterways. What’s
more, the less sewage treated, the less
energy that gets used: New York’s sew-
er and water system contributes about
17 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas
emissions, and since the water system
is almost entirely powered by gravity,
sewage treatment creates most of that
carbon footprint.
Several U.S. cities have recognized
the potential of green measures to
mitigate wastewater control problems.
Kansas City has a program to create
10,000 rain gardens. Chicago, while still
building traditional retention tanks for
CSO water, has adopted legislation to re-
quire new developments of greater than
15,000 square feet to retain some of their
stormwater on site. Portland mandates
that developments including more than
500 square feet of impervious surface
manage stormwater on site.
Those innovations in other cities
have frustrated New York City’s scien-
tifc and activist community in recent
years, who have seen little of that ap-
proach at work here. For backers of the
green approach, the debate has moved
beyond needing another pilot program.
“You’ll go blue in the face reading all
there reports that espouse green in-
frastructure,” says Riverkeeper legal
investigator Basil Seggos. “We’re way
beyond knowing that green works.”
A
s recently as last fall, DEP offcials
were arguing that while alterna-
tive efforts to reduce wastewater at
the source—sometimes called “source
controls”—are tempting, the traditional
approach is still the most likely to make
reductions in sewage overfows. “It is
very important to emphasize here that
although the toolbox for source con-
trol strategies is plentiful, and many of
these strategies are currently used else-
where throughout the country, many of
these tools have limited value for large
scale CSO mitigation in an urban en-
down The drain
Here are some of the penalties New york City has had to pay for
violating federal and state regulations on drinking water and sewage:
$15.1 million since 2002 to the state Department of Environmental
Conservation for wastewater violations
$5.5 million to the U.S. Department of Justice for violating the Clean Water
Act by introducing turbid water to Esopus Creek in the Catskills watershed
$3.7 million and counting for failing to flter the Croton system and missing
deadlines in a deal with the EPA in which the city promised to build a fltration
plant, where delays in the construction are costing the city $30,000 a day in fnes
$500,000 a year to fund a monitor who watches over the city’s water
protection practices, as part of the sentence for the city’s criminal convictions on
Clean Water Act violations which also led to $50,000 in fnes
$27,500 to the EPA in May 2006 for excessive turbidity in the Catskills/
Delaware drinking water system
(sources: DeC, ePA, DoJ)
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 19
vironment,” the DEP’s Lawitts told an
October 2006 City Council hearing.
“Therefore, our CSO control strategies
will rely most heavily on the proven
end-of-pipe practices.”
Lawitts’s comments touched a nerve,
and might have been a turning point.
In conversations with the city as the
mayor’s sustainability effort gathered
steam, advocates pressed their case
that “green” solutions were indeed
proven. As PlaNYC took shape, advo-
cates say, the city warmed to the idea
of expanding the use of green methods.
DEP has started to talk to groups like
Earth Pledge and the Gaia Institute
to estimate the potential effciency
of green roofs or develop new park-
land projects to capture rain. Looking
ahead, two city laws passed in 2005
might soon infuence the city’s environ-
mental conversation. Local Law 83 calls
for a Wetlands Transfer Task Force to
submit a report in September 2007 on
transferring city-owned wetlands to the
city’s Department of Parks and Recre-
ation or other agencies for protection.
Local Law 71 launched the ongoing
watershed protection study at Jamaica
Bay and mandated the incorporation
of “best management practices”—a
category of innovative approaches that
includes green infrastructure—into the
bay’s remediation.
But hopeful as it is, the Jamaica Bay
process is somewhat bittersweet for
green advocates in the rest of the city,
who wish the DEP was compelled to
do green planning across the fve bor-
oughs. Indeed, while the DEP is show-
ing more openness to alternative solu-
tions to long-standing environmental
challenges, the efforts are localized or
isolated, while the problems of storm-
water and sewage overfow are massive
and citywide.
That’s why it’s unclear whether these
nascent green efforts to control sew-
age overfows have enough funding
and scope to make up for the capacity
lost by DEP’s canceled detention tank
projects.. That question extends to the
multifaceted approach Mayor Bloom-
berg has pitched in PlaNYC.
VI. The new plan
When Bloomberg turned to the CSO
problem in the April 2007 speech unveil-
ing his 2030 initiative, he highlighted the
city’s accomplishments to date before
detailing his plan. “Since 1980, we’ve
cut [CSO] water pollution by more than
half,” the mayor said. “Now, we’ll build
on that progress, by investing more
than $10 billion in continued upgrades
to our sewage treatment facilities and
in preventing the rainwater run-off that
triggers sewage overfow. That means
greening our streets, expanding our
bluebelts, promoting green roofs, even
planting water-cleansing mollusks!”
It was hard not to be impressed with
PlaNYC’s dizzying buffet of green op-
tions, spread across 12 colorful pages
sprinkled with textbook-like diagrams
and even an image of a Swedish mollusk
farm extending down into the depths. In
what can be considered a true victory
for the green lobby, the plan announced
on its last page its most substantial and
concrete offering: a fve-year green roof
incentive in the form of a property tax
abatement equal to 35 percent of the in-
stallation cost.
The plan further explains that the
“city is developing four residential and
two commercial pilots to analyze the
potential cumulative benefts of green
roofs on the city’s combined sewer
system,” at an expected cost of just
over $1.3 million for each. PlaNYC also
designates a task force to get all the play-
City Limits investigates
20 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
ers into one room, an important step
given the multiple agencies that have a
role in how the city handles water—the
Parks Department controls trees, De-
partment of Transportation the streets,
Department of Buildings the construc-
tion code and DEP the pipes and plants.
Advocates see those proposals as
the product of years of lobbying. Earth
Pledge’s Hoffman has been one of many
people pushing for years for the city to
adopt something like the green roof
abatement. “Six years ago I was sitting
with [then-DEP commissioner] Chris
Ward and pounding on the table saying
that Mayor Bloomberg could take the
lead here. He could stand up and start
to move and beat Chicago’s butt,” she
says. “It’s taken years,” she adds.
Stuart Gaffn, a Columbia climate re-
search scientist, was part of a team that
analyzed the costs and performance
of green roofs for the city. He recalls
initial scoffng from builders who in-
sisted that green roofs, known not just
for their water retaining properties but
also their ability to absorb heat, would
offer no additional cooling on top of
standard insulation. Gaffn says that the
“typical reaction” from city offcials was
one of being “loathe” to impose man-
dates or fees to force developers to go
green. But they were open, at least, to
the idea that green roofs were an idea
worth supporting. “We prevailed upon
them that runoff control was more im-
portant,” Gaffn says. “The [sewage]
system is well beyond capacity, so they
realized that this was a no-brainer.”
For all their cheering, advocates
found some parts of PlaNYC more likely
to make them wince—or chuckle. One
proposal to drain stormwater directly
into waterways through special high-
level storm sewers threatens to reduce
the CSO problem at the cost of ejecting
more toxic runoff straight into the city’s
rivers and bays. While PlaNYC men-
tions the potential of swales—vegetated
gullies between the sidewalk and road-
way—to channel, collect and absorb
rainwater, it commits to a pilot project to
construct only one. There was also the
underwhelming announcement that a
1658 C.E. New Amster-
dam’s civic leaders ban
privies with street-level
outlets. The order is
widely ignored.
1703 First public sewer built a year
after mosquito-borne yellow fever
kills at least one in 10 New Yorkers.
1731 City law commands that all
“tubs of dung” be thrown into the
river and not the streets.
1832 Cholera kills 3,513 New Yorkers
and causes tens of thousands to fee
the city. Some observers attribute the
epidemic not to flthy water but to
“miasmic vapors,” Koeppel writes.
1799 A year after yellow fever kills 2,000 New
Yorkers, Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company wins
charter to build a water system. While the company
eventually completes a small reservoir, the fne
print allows Burr to open a bank that eventually
becomes Chase Manhattan.
1803 City begins flling in the
Collect, a pond near today’s Foley
Square that was a main source
of fresh water but also a popular
dumping spot for dishwater,
laundry suds, animal carcasses and
industrial runoff.
The smell oF success
NYC’s sewage saga
in 1829, some 100 tons of human excrement were buried in city soil each day. Despite
a series of deadly epidemics, it was decades before the city built a system for bringing
clean water in, and even longer before New york made provisions for getting sewage
out. “it’s hard to know why exactly it took them so long,” says gerard Koeppel, author
of Water for gotham. “there was a certain amount of tolerance of disease and sick-
ness in those days, generally.” Much has changed. But the sewage overfow problem is
only the latest chapter in the story than began when humans frst settled here to eat,
drink and digest:
4500 B.C.E. Human waste debuts
in New York City as the frst per-
manent settlers arrive. In 1624,
the Dutch join in.
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 21
mere fve tree pits would be planted and
monitored for impacts.
Even the green roof tax abatement,
while a major step, imposes no mandate
on developers or building owners to
help solve the pressing CSO problem;
in fact, since many new developments
get lengthy property tax abatements for
other reasons (like affordable housing),
the program might not offer as much
of an incentive as it seems. And the
administration’s own green roof proj-
ects, while encouraging, are but pilots.
Taken together, critics say, the plan be-
trays a lingering hesitancy on the city’s
part to really go green. “They’ll ‘explore
the possibilities for incorporating these
initiatives,” says Dart Westphal, board
chairman of the Bronx River Alliance
and president of the Bronx Council for
Environmental Quality, reading off the
plan. “That’s two disclaimers in one sen-
tence!” he laughs.
Laughing aside, PlaNYC has not as-
suaged the deep worries of the city’s
water advocates. “Our concern is that
they’re trying to get away with not
meeting the Clean Water Act,” West-
phal says. The concern there is not so
much the policy proposals in PlaNYC,
but the goals it aspires to reach.
Measured next to the sweeping ambi-
tion of the rest of PlaNYC, the mayor’s
water quality plan seems pretty timid.
While the rules promulgated under
the Clean Water Act call for a CSO cap-
ture rate of 85 percent, PlaNYC makes
the defating revelation that the entire
menu of new policies it is proposing is
“expected to improve the CSO capture
rate to more than 75 percent”—which
is, of course, exactly what the 2004 con-
sent order demands that the city do.
Given that the city already captures 72
percent of its wet-weather fow, that goal
could have 24 billion gallons still spill-
ing every year, or enough to completely
cover the Brooklyn and the Bronx with
a foot of untreated wastewater.
The goal to make 90 percent of the
city’s waterways open to recreation
also bears scrutiny. The city seems
to have scaled back Bloomberg’s
September 2006 vision of attaining wa-
1842 The newly completed Croton aquaduct sys-
tem both necessitates and facilitates the creation
of a sewer system, as it creates demand for fush
toilets but also provides the water volume needed
for sanitary removal.
1902 With 1,400 miles of sewer
pipe now underground, the city’s
problem—as the Encyclopedia of
New York puts it—turns from how
to collect waste to what to do with
it once it is collected.
1992 New York City and the state sign a consent
order mandating efforts to reduce combined
sewage overfows (CSOs). Because of the city’s
failure to adhere to the order, a second CSO
order is signed in 2004.
2003 As a blackout darkens much of
the northeastern United States, city
wastewater plants release 490 million
gallons of untreated sewage.
1937 New Deal money pays for the completion of the
city’s frst wastewater treatment plant, on Coney Island.
Plans are made for the construction of 13 other plants,
but movement toward completion is slow.
1987 The Red Hook Water
Pollution Control Plant, last of the
14 to be built, opens. In following
years, city plants sometimes
operate above capacity and annoy
neighbors with their stench.
1835 The Great Fire destroys 20 blocks and 700
buildings, and stokes public support for a reliable
supply of water to extinguish future blazes.
1850 The city begins a fve-year
project to lay underground sewer
pipes, which resumes and accelerates
after the Civil War.
City Limits investigates
22 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 23
ter quality levels that would permit swimming, or primary
contact. The goal will be to get 90 percent of the city’s tribu-
taries open for boating—secondary contact.
Advocates wanted PlaNYC to deliver more. A gathering of
water advocates called the SWIM Coalition is pressing for a
higher standard. PlaNYC represents progress, they say, just
not enough. “Slowly, it does seem like the tide is turning a
little bit,” says the Bronx River Alliance’s Teresa Crimmens.
“However, the scale that the city is coming along at is not
appropriate. The scale is not as widespread as it could or
should be.”
The city’s history of legal troubles over sewage releases
might be constraining its ambitions for 2030. While PlaNYC
was a voluntary, self-directed project, the city’s adherence to
the 2004 consent decree is mandatory. And since that docu-
ment sets the 75 percent CSO capture goal, that’s the one the
city articulates.
The green solutions that PlaNYC embraces could—with
enough investment—produce higher CSO capture. The prob-
lem is they don’t have to. “The [recreation] goal that they set
is what they expect to achieve through projects mandated
by the consent order,” Natural Resources Defense Council
attorney Larry Levine says. “The goal doesn’t act as a driver
to move beyond that.”
R
ohit Aggarwala, director of the Offce of Long-Term
Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS), does not con-
tend that PlaNYC’s goal for sewage overfow control is as
aggressive as it could have been. He argues that it is only as
aggressive as it is attainable. “What we did in the plan—we
did it throughout—is we set goals that we considered to be
ambitious but achievable. So we weren’t going to set a goal
that we weren’t confdent that somehow, with a reasonable
investment of public funds, that we could reach.”
That balancing act is refected in both the aims and the ap-
proach in the plan, Aggarwala says. The plan is focused less
on overall water quality, he says, than trying to restore the
most polluted city waters. “Newtown Creek, Flushing Bay,
Paerdegat Basin, parts of the Bronx River—these are the last
places in the city where it’s not even safe enough to go out in
a rowboat,” he says. “We’re really hoping that we can focus
on some of those places and bring them back into use.”
And the methods for reaching that goal, Aggarwala says,
include a mix of old standbys and limited green pilots—pi-
lots because, despite advocates’ claims to the contrary, not
enough is known about how green approaches would work in
New York’s vast street and sewer system. Porous pavement,
for example, works in Seattle. But can it survive a New York
winter? And if it can’t, does it make sense to fund full imple-
mentation, and watch it fail? In other cases, like swales on
A dispute over whether to cover the Hillview Reservoir, the last
stop for virtually all the drinking water used in New York City, has persist-
ed since at least 1993 and is now in Federal Court. Photo: Jarrett Murphy
City Limits investigates
24 SUMMER 2007
City Limits investigates
the side of roads to collect rainwater,
DEP has to run pilots because it must
convince budget planners to fund the
real thing. “While we’re confdent that
we’ll fnd a way to implement [green
solutions], what we wanted to do was
kind of hedge our bets, which is why
we’ve got a plan that, for lack of better
terminology, kind of relies on the old
way” for now, says Aggarwala. “Par-
ticularly where courts get involved, we
don’t want to promise something that
we aren’t confdent that we can deliv-
er,” he adds.
The fact is, it’s not easy being green.
For all their appeal and potential, green
measures face challenges as well.
Take trees. The mayor’s 2030 plan
calls for adding a million more trees.
Besides exchanging greenhouse-gas
carbon dioxide for breathable oxygen
and being nice to look at, trees soak up
rainwater that would otherwise have
to fow through the city’s sewers. New
York’s street trees have an estimated
$36 million beneft to the city.
A million more trees could be ex-
pected to absorb about 1.5 billion gal-
lons of rain. But not all trees are equal:
Many trees planted under the Green-
streets program during the Giuliani
and early Bloomberg administrations
were placed in pits that do not collect
enough water for the trees to survive.
So instead of relying on those trees to
soak up rainwater, the Parks Depart-
ment must water them. Parks is now
renovating the Greenstreets tree pits to
make the system more effcient.
But while the agency can fx the
placement of its trees, it cannot create
space. And that poses a practical ob-
stacle to simply planting more trees:
The streets of New York City—where
trees would do the most good because
of the impervious surroundings—only
have space for about 220,000 additional
street trees. Where will the city put the
other 780,000 trees? “It’s going to take a
lot of planting on private properties,” as
well as government agencies, schools,
universities, hospitals and parks, says
Parks Department First Deputy Com-
missioner Liam Kavanagh.
If street space is at a premium, so
are city wetlands. While PlaNYC calls
for expanding the Bluebelt—a system
of wetlands being restored to capture
stormwater in 15 watersheds at the
southern end of Staten Island, as well as
the Richmond Creek watershed—the
topographical conditions there do not
apply to other parts of New York City.
It’d be nice if that solution were practi-
cal for other boroughs, but it’s not.
Other green solutions also face prac-
tical limits, which might explain why
PlaNYC was gun-shy about commitment
to massive implementation. Expanded
absorptive pits such as tree swales are
obviously limited to the available space
on sidewalks and so are not practical for
much denser spaces such as lower Man-
hattan. In addition, any modifcation to
sidewalks is shaped by Department of
Transportation rules such as how wide
the sidewalk has to be and what load-
bearing capacity it must have—factors
that have nothing to do with maximiz-
ing stormwater absorption.
No green solution will change the
fact that New York’s waterways are
woven into a heavily built environment;
that means they don’t necessarily be-
have like natural waterways. For the
DEP’s Licata, the problem facing plac-
es like Newtown Creek is not just CSO
outfalls, but the waterways themselves.
“Frankly, the water quality in some of
those tributaries is not so much driven
by what is coming in, but the fact that
it’s not circulating, the retention time is
too long, and the depths are too deep,”
she says. “If you really look at those wa-
terbodies, Mother Nature never would
create anything like that. So anticipating
that they should react in the way that a
clean environment would is simply just
not making the connections.” In other
instances, nature itself is the obstacle:
While soils in some parts of the city of-
fer opportunities for laying new drain-
age systems for handling wastewater,
Manhattan’s high-lying bedrock makes
that impossible.
Even the promise of green roofs
comes with caveats. Green roofs can
be adapted by size and weight, but are
limited by roof slopes and weight-bear-
ing capacity. It’s not impossible to build
green roofs on a sloped roof, but once
the pitch gets high enough, special
mechanical fxtures are required. It is
generally accepted that while Manhat-
tan’s fat roofs provide fertile ground
for green roofs, the more residential ar-
eas of Queens, for example, with their
single-family pitched-roof homes, are
very unlikely candidates. Skyscraper
roofs pose a different set of questions,
given the antennas and other objects
that clutter some.
Green advocates argue that these
challenges—and the technologies’ costs
—are offset by effciencies that kick in
over time. The initial expense, however,
can be daunting. It’s been a particular
challenge to efforts to get buildings to
reuse water that goes down sink drains
(graywater) or even toilets (blackwater).
Systems to manage and reuse storm-
water on site are under construction
at marquee green developments such
as the new Bank of America Tower at
One Bryant Park. Water reuse systems
are already in operation at sites such
as the Solaire residential complex and
Tribeca Green. The Solaire, at 20 River
Terrace on the Hudson, has been in-
formally crowned the frst “green” resi-
dential high-rise to use advanced water
and energy systems in an urban setting:
The 290-unit building’s water reuse sys-
tem can process 25,000 gallons a day,
while stormwater is collected and used to
irrigate the complex’s rooftop gardens.
But the city’s Comprehensive Water
Reuse Program, created in 2004 and
“When you look at DEP’s long-term capital plan—pre-PlaNYC
and post-PlaNYC—it’s really kind of the same . . . We were
arguing very forcefully for a more ambitious goal.”
City Limits investigates City Limits investigates
SUMMER 2007 26
cited in PlaNYC, has only one participant
to date: the aforementioned Solaire. Ac-
cording to Warren Liebold, DEP’s Direc-
tor of Technical Services/Conservation,
the lack of signatories is due to the fact
that the incentive offered—a 25 percent
reduction in water and sewer charges
for buildings whose reuse systems de-
crease water consumption by at least 25
percent—is not suffcient to offset the
start-up and maintenance costs and spur
new water reuse developments.
F
or the city, a higher upfront cost is
not just a fnancial but also a politi-
cal hurdle to clear. Aggarwala notes the
“fury” that threatened to erupt recently
when the New York City Water Board
proposed and passed a double-digit wa-
ter rate hike (see “Risky Waters,” p.16).
Since water rates support all water and
sewer capital projects, customers’ wa-
ter bills will refect the ambition of the
mayor’s plan—and whether it aims for
swimmable waters.
Aggarwala denies the mayor back-
tracked on the recreation goal. “When
he mentioned the word ‘swimmable,’
it was not in the context of a percent-
age target. It was saying you know, ‘We
should have more of our waterways
swimmable.’ And there’s no question
that we should and that’s what we’re all
aiming for,” he says. “A lot of the water
quality people—the advocates—are re-
ally eager to have swimmability and I
think it’s certainly a laudable goal, but
until we are certain how well the [best
management practices] work the only
way we could do that is by billions and
billions and billions of dollars more in
the hard infrastructure. I think if we’re
going to look to complete swimmabil-
ity as our goal, we have to be ready for
massive increases in the water rates.”
Environmentalists acknowledge that
while attaining the current goal has been
projected to cost around $2 billion, fur-
ther CSO reductions will be much more
expensive to attain. Already, work on the
city’s sewers and wastewater treatment
plants is projected to cost $10.8 billion
over the next ten years—more than half
of DEP’s total capital budget.
Higher water rates for struggling
homeowners might seem a high price
to pay for a swim off the city’s coasts.
There are pools, after all. But for water
advocates, swimmability as a goal isn’t
really about taking a dip in Newtown
Creek come 2030. It’s about achieving
the level of water quality—with the at-
tendant health and fscal benefts—that
goes with swimmability, which would
require the city to capture much more
than the 75 percent wet-weather cap-
ture that the 2004 court order and
the mayor’s 2030 plan actually state.
“When you look at DEP’s long-term
PlaNyC seeks to make 90 percent of the city’s tributaries open to recreation, including Flushing Bay, which is already used by sailors,
boaters and jet-skiers unafraid to foat in the shadow of industrial storage tanks. Photo: Jarrett Murphy
City Limits investigates
26 SUMMER 2007
capital plan—pre-PlaNYC and post-
PlaNYC—it’s really kind of the same,”
says City Councilmember and Envi-
ronmental Protection Committee chair
Jim Gennaro of Queens. He adds: “We
were arguing very forcefully for a more
ambitious goal.”
Aggarwala says the intention is to
do far more than PlaNYC states. “For
the frst time in a long time, [we’re go-
ing to] do stuff that we’re not legally
required to do because we think it’s a
better way,” he says.
That’s the water quality puzzle in
PlaNYC: It purports to chart a course
for the future, sets a fairly modest goal
but hints at more ambitious things to
come. It asks for a leap of faith by ad-
vocates and citizens.
That leap would be easier to take if
the city weren’t committing to a court-
ordered CSO abatement program based
only on what it knows now—before the
green pilots are done. The plans that
were fled with the state in June per the
2004 consent order are just drafts, but
it’s unclear how the PlaNYC pilots will
inform and amend the efforts the city
has just proposed. “What can they de-
sign and engineer if they’re aiming for
a fnal plan a year from now,” while the
mayor’s plan is “23 years in the future?”
asks Carter Craft, head of the Metro-
politan Waterfront Alliance.
PlaNYC billed itself as an historic
conversation between the city and its
people over how to make the fve bor-
oughs more sustainable. Now that the
plan is done, the city is continuing its
public outreach effort in talks with wa-
ter quality advocates. It’s not clear, how-
ever, how much the public comments
shaped the massive 2030 document.
In fact, how PlaNYC did any of its
planning is hard to know: A Freedom
of Information Act request to OLTPS
asking for documents relating to CSOs
and stormwater control uncovered ex-
actly one document that pertained to a
single project in Staten Island. On ap-
peal, the offce provided three more
documents: a press release, an article
in Gotham Gazette and a fyer for a con-
ference. Some gaps at OLTPS may be
understandable: After all, says Zidar of
the Lower East Side Ecology Center,
“They’re trying to do 20 years of plan-
ning in six months.”
VII. A confuence
Back in October, the DEP’s Lawitts
set a ceiling on optimism for dealing
with the city’s CSO problem. “With-
out excavating several thousand miles
of sewers buried under city streets,”
he told the City Council, “we will not
completely end the source of CSOs.”
The choice buried in PlaNYC is how
close the city wants to get. Amid the
debate about the merits of new, green
alternatives versus known, brick-and-
mortar solutions, all parties agree on
one thing: An intelligent mixing of the
two is required. No one with a green
roof on top of their building is suggest-
ing that New York City dispose of its
wastewater treatment network, which
has been arguably just as important
as the water supply system in allowing
New York to develop without the wor-
ries of waterborne disease that are an
everyday threat for billions.
For all PlaNYC’s good intentions,
right now, that’s all the plan is. “It
doesn’t really have any legal hook,” is
how Riverkeeper’s Seggos puts it. Ad-
vocates are relying on the Bloomberg
administration to get green, CSO-re-
ducing technologies codifed into law
before the mayor leaves offce. Even
critics admit that a perceptual shift
seems to be underway in city policy-
makers’ thinking about green solu-
tions. Councilmember Gennaro has
described the current mood and mayor
as indications that “the planets are in
alignment.” Who better than a mayor
who understands the most practical
ways in which markets can be manipu-
lated and is simultaneously seeking
to leave a globally felt environmental
legacy to lay a replicable blueprint for
clean water sustainability in an urban
environment? As Sustainable South
Bronx’s Rob Crauderueff puts it, to
solve our CSO crisis in a sustainable
way, “ultimately we need to change the
way the city does business.”
What’s open for debate is what that
business’s bottom line is, and PlaNYC
leaves the question open. “On paper it
looks great,” says Zidar. “But we have a
hard-earned cynicism in the grassroots.
The devil is in the details.”
And in the goals. For New York City
to accomplish by 2030 only what a court
has already ordered it to do will mean
little has changed by the time a million
new New Yorkers arrive and start fush-
ing. The city will still be spilling billions
of gallons and risking costly interven-
tion from Washington or Albany. Doug-
las McKenna, the EPA’s head of water
compliance for Region 2, says, “There
are EPA judicial consent decrees taken
against a large and growing number of
cities on CSOs.” Those come with high-
dollar penalties and mandates to spend
even more fxing problems that cities
refused to solve on their own.
Between now and then, the price for
CSOs is paid by the city’s waterways
and the citizens who are asked not to
touch them—despite signs that, after
decades of ignoring the surrounding
waters, New Yorkers are turning to-
wards them.
On the day when he piloted two sci-
entists into Newtown Creek, John Lip-
scomb recalled days when businesses
treated the creek as their personal
dump for packing pallets, polystyrene
containers and poultry scraps. That
doesn’t happen anymore, he noted. Lip-
scomb pointed to new picnic areas, a
park and other public access areas that
are new or going up along the banks of
arguably the area’s dirtiest waterway.
“There’s a new consciousness now,”
he said. “Newtown Creek could thrive
if we’d just get our foot off its throat.”
He fred up the motor, and the boat’s
wake turned a sickly gold—too sick for
consciousness alone to cure.
u
City Limits investigates
the city’s skyline, seen from the banks of the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers. Photo: Jarrett Murphy
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the Empire State Building rises behind the
Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in
Brooklyn. Photo: Jarrett Murphy