NYC Gets an Earful on Solving Sewage Overflows

Overflows are still happening. A lot. And concerned New Yorkers are looking to the mayor to fix it.

I’ve been writing a lot about the latest happenings on sewage overflows in New York City. 

Spoiler alert: Overflows are still happening. A lot. And concerned New Yorkers are looking to the Mayor to fix it. About 2,500 people have sent emails to the Mayor since last week calling for real solutions, and you can too.

On Wednesday, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is responsible for collecting and treating sewage—and keeping it out of the water—held its annual public meeting on the city’s efforts to reduce sewage overflows.

Over 100 people turned out in Queens on a chilly night to talk sewage. And some of the people most affected by overflows—representing communities neighboring Flushing Bay, the Bronx River, Harlem River, Newtown Creek, and others—let DEP know they’re not happy.

(Riverkeeper’s got the whole meeting on video, in 2 parts, here and here. They and all of NRDC’s partners at the SWIM Coalition did a fantastic job encouraging people to turn out for the meeting.)

DEP senior leadership made a series of presentations on past, ongoing, and planned investments in the wastewater system to reduce overflows. NYC has come a long way since the 1980s, when 220 million gallons of raw sewage went straight into the harbor every day, before the last of the city’s 14 sewage treatment plants were completed. Those plants were a major achievement of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act. That bedrock law set specific deadlines for all public sewage systems nationwide to treat all sewage under “dry weather” conditions, and provided substantial federal funding to support the necessary capital investments.

Despite that progress, there’s no doubt that that we have a long way to go. While virtually all of the city’s sewage receives standardized levels of treatment when it hasn’t rained recently, its another story when it’s been raining. Storm runoff can easily overwhelm the city’s antiquated system, sending more than 20 billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with polluted runoff into waterways each year.

On Wednesday night, DEP touted its plans to further reduce those sewage overflows. And there’s no question it’s not an easy task, or quick one, or a cheap one. 

At the end of the day, however, New Yorkers deserve clean waterways that are safe for people and ‘for the fishes’. Despite DEP’s graphs, tables, and charts, the city’s plans just won’t get us there.

Questions from the attendees highlighted, and DEP’s presentations or responses largely conceded that:

  • Far too often, local waterways still won’t be safe to touch. While DEP’s approach will meet outdated water quality standards, they won’t come close to meeting the standards that EPA says are necessary to protect public health. (By the way, when it hasn’t been raining recently, the water typically is safe to touch—come on in and kayak!  But it rains often in NYC, and the city issues overflow alerts about 100 times a year.)
  • The City plans to dump chlorine into sewage overflows, but doesn’t know if it will be safe or effective. The plans for Alley Creek, Flushing Creek, and the Hutchinson River call for “disinfection” of otherwise untreated sewage with chlorine. The state has approved these plans, even though DEP is still testing out whether chlorination can simultaneously meet pathogen-reduction goals and prevent toxic chlorine from harming waterways. It was clear from DEP’s answers that they’re not confident it can be done. And DEP conceded that many of the key analyses won’t be done until they’re almost ready to build the disinfection facilities.
  • The City plans to reduce overflows in some places by diverting it to others. For example, one question pointed out that the planned overflow reductions to the Bronx River will come at the expense of dumping more sewage into the East River. In response, DEP was satisfied that the sewage would just disperse into the East River.
  • DEP consistently glosses over how often overflows will still occur under the plans. The charts and graphs show the volume of overflows that will remain in various waterbodies. While the total annual volumes are being reduced in some water bodies—sometimes significantly—DEP rarely shows how often overflows will continue to occur. For example, the technical details of the Bronx River plan show that DEP still expects overflows 32 times per year. DEP never highlights that in its public presentations, and I called them out for it during the Q&A.
  • Long-term progress has been—and will continue to be—very slow.  After the sewage treatment plants were finished in the early 1990s until today, the city has achieved only about a one-third reduction of overflows in the last 25 years—from 30+ billion gallons per year to 20+ billion gallons. Under DEP’s planned approach going forward, the total will get down to the neighborhood of 18 billion gallons by 2035. Over a 43-year period, that will be less than a 50% reduction.  Put another way, 65 years after the federal Clean Water Act set a binding goal of “fishable, swimmable waters,” NYC will still have 18 billion gallons of sewage overflows annually—and that’s without accounting for greater amounts of rainfall that we can expect in the future due to climate change.
  • Relatively smaller overflow points aren’t getting much attention. DEP is focusing its efforts on the biggest overflow points, which makes sense in terms of bang for the buck on reducing overflow volume. But the city isn’t paying much attention to smaller overflow points, where raw sewage can still flow into waterways frequently, to the dismay of nearby communities.
  • DEP says it wants to tackle sewage overflows and other stormwater pollution more holistically, but it isn’t clearly doing so yet. DEP continues to emphasize that even 100% elimination of sewer overflows won’t meet clean water goals. In light of that, DEP argues that it’s not worth pushing for further reductions. But DEP also concedes that the other major pollution source to the same waterbodies is also the City’s responsibility: polluted runoff from the 40% of the city where storm sewer pipes are separate from sewage pipes. DEP talked about the need to address both pollution sources holistically, but so far DEP hasn’t been able to break down the silos between them. There’s no plan to find the optimal mix of pollution control investments, for all pollution sources, to achieve clean water goals.
  • DEP says it is “committed” to meeting current green infrastructure targets, but others aren’t yet convinced. DEP presented on the several elements of its green infrastructure program, which uses new and existing urban green space to soak up storm runoff before it can overload the sewers. The key pieces are: retrofitting the public right-of-way (i.e., streets and sidewalks); retrofitting public facilities (parks, schools, public housing, etc.); regulating new development projects to capture runoff on-site; and incentivizing retrofits of existing development. DEP, so far, has put most of its effort into the right-of-way, and came up short of its initial targets. It is now increasing its work in the other areas—where there’s lots of room for improvement—and is getting mixed reviews on the effort. Crucially, however, DEP has been wavering from its commitment to meeting long-term green infrastructure goals. On Wednesday night, DEP leadership acknowledged some of the challenges, glossed over others, and asserted that the City is “still committed” to those goals. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. 
  • Members of the public still aren’t getting the voice they deserve in the decision-making process—and the state, especially, is abdicating its responsibility to solicit and address public concerns. One questioner literally got applause from the crowd by demanding real opportunities for informed public input into decisions about cleanup plans, before final decisions are made. Over the last several years, DEP has repeatedly submitted plans for state approval without any prior opportunity for public review of, or feedback on, the plans. And the state has been approving those plans without any process for inviting and considering public input. That violates fundamental tenets of the Clean Water Act and, more fundamentally, of democratic governance: Environmental agencies must solicit, evaluate, and provide substantive response to, public comments on significant proposed decisions. A real public participation process not only gives people a venue to raise concerns—but also improves the quality of the ultimate decisions, because the public often raises valid concerns that can’t simply be ignored. (See above!) 

On Wednesday night, DEP said that, for the plans still under development (Jamaica Bay, Hudson River, Harlem River, East River, and other “open waters” of the harbor), it intends to allow time for public review and comment on a complete draft plan before DEP finalizes it for submission to the state. But, incredibly, a representative of the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation said that the state takes no responsibility for inviting or responding to public comments before it makes the ultimate decision: whether to approve DEP’s plans and let the City off the hook, for the next one to two decades, for doing anything beyond what the plans contain. That is, frankly, offensive to all New Yorkers who care about cleaning up their waterways.

  • DEP’s systems for notifying the public of sewer overflows are flawed, but improvements are underway. DEP acknowledged that the sewer system modeling used to generate overflow alerts is outdated and incomplete. For example, even though the Hudson River, East River, and Harlem River are some of the biggest hotspots for sewage overflows, the alert system never sends out an alert for overflows there. DEP said it is currently working on updating the alert system, which is good news for everyone. An informed public can avoid the water when its unsafe—and is also armed with information to advocate for solutions. (You can sign up to receive alerts for DEP’s current system via NotifyNYC.)

Finally, these are a few other things I noticed at the meeting:

  • DEP is puffing up its numbers for planned investments, by showing “escalated costs.” In other words, they compare apples and oranges by saying how much current projects cost in today’s dollars, but show how much future projects will cost based on future inflation—up to 18 years in the future. I’ll got out on a limb and say that the average person (i.e., anyone who’s not an economist or finance expert) knows what a dollar is worth today, but doesn’t think in terms of what a dollar is worth tomorrow. So, DEP’s presentation makes it sound like the city is committing a lot more money to new investment than it really is.
  • DEP obscures the key issues about “affordability”—i.e., how to afford greater investments without undue burdens on lower-income New Yorkers. The biggest reason DEP offers for not doing more is that it is expensive. DEP claims that higher costs will drive up water and sewer rates to levels that are unaffordable for lower-income New Yorkers.  But water and sewer bills are not only a function of the system’s operating and capital costs. Bills are also a function of the rate structure—how those costs are allocated among categories of customers. For example, DEP’s rate structure currently overcharges multi-family affordable housing properties for the costs of reducing sewage overflows and reducing stormwater pollution, because DEP bills for those expenses are based on potable water use, not based on how much runoff a property contributes to the sewer system. By restructuring the rates to bill separately for stormwater—based on impervious area—we reallocate the burdens to large impervious properties, allowing DEP to raise more total revenue without imposing an undue burden on affordable housing. 

Further, DEP already has various programs of “low income assistance” to reduce water and sewer bills, which are worthy of praise and, in some cases, nationally recognized as innovative. But when DEP argues that more investment in reducing overflows will be burdensome to low-income residents, it conveniently ignores these programs and shows projected future water and sewer bills unadjusted for these assistance programs.

Clearly, there’s a lot more work to do.  Stay tuned here for more.

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