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Larry Levine’s Blog

NYC reveals new plan to help tackle sewage overflows with greener infrastructure

Larry Levine

Posted September 28, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably

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The past two days of miserable, heavy rain in New York City lent an appropriate backdrop for an important announcement from city officials today. Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Environmental Protection are unveiling a plan that aims to reduce the city’s nearly 30 billion gallon per year sewage overflow problem through investments in smarter practices on land – like green roofs and porous pavement – that make a real difference in cleaning up our waterways. This plan has the potential to develop into a comprehensive solution to the long-standing pollution problem in New York City (and urban areas across the country) that spikes on rainy days like today.

Here’s what happens and why this will help:

Imagine that you’re walking through the city during a storm, and you see large amounts of rainwater swirling toward the sewers, collecting pollution as it goes.  That stormwater runoff drains into the city’s combined sewer systems – the same pipes and facilities that are also tasked with funneling our wastewater (i.e. raw sewage) to the city’s treatment plants. In heavy rainstorms, the city’s aging sewer systems can no longer handle this increased capacity of water to treat, so it’s discharged – untreated – into local waterways.

The result is pretty gross – as you can see for yourself in the video below from a few guys in Brooklyn who got a first-hand glimpse of a recent sewer overflow into the Gowanus Canal, following New York City’s massive September 16 storm:

New York City is fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful waterways in all five boroughs. But unfortunately -- from the Bronx River, to Jamaica Bay, the East and Hudson Rivers, New York Harbor and ultimately our beaches in the city and on Long Island – they’re plagued with this pollution. Not only does this muck contain disease-causing bacteria and toxic chemicals that can make us sick, it fouls our waters with excessive nutrients that breed algae blooms, essentially choking ecologically sensitive marine life.

The good news is that the sorts of solutions in the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan that the city is unveiling today can help prevent CSOs by keeping stormwater runoff from reaching sewers in the first place.

So-called “green infrastructure” solutions like green roofs, parks, roadside and sidewalk plantings, tree boxes, porous pavement, rain barrels and cisterns – naturally control and treat stormwater pollution by absorbing polluted runoff instead of diverting the flow straight into our waterways. And they have the added benefit of making the city a more pleasant place to live overall by increasing greenspace, cooling overall temperatures, and boosting local jobs.

Tackling New York City’s massive sewage overflow problem will require an extensive investment in green infrastructure practices, something NRDC has encouraged the city to do for years. This proposed plan is an important first step in making the city a cleaner, healthier place to live, while literally boosting the economy and cooling the planet. What’s more, while other cities (like Philadelphia) are also embracing the benefits of green infrastructure for curbing water pollution, New York has an opportunity to set a national example on how to clean it up for the rest of the country to follow.

We look forward to working with the city to fully understand the details of this plan, and to help them develop it into a comprehensive approach that will help make our waterways swimmable and fishable, while making this an even better, greener place to live.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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