NEW YORK (January 30th, 2008) – The New York City Council passed legislation today to tackle the sewage overflowproblem in the City’s overburdened sewer system. The legislation advances the implementation of green design elements, which mimic nature's own filtering systems, into the City’s existing streets, parks, and other public spaces and into existing and new development projects.
By adopting ‘green infrastructure’ solutions, such as green roofs, permeable pavement, wetland restoration, and smarter design of street tree plantings, stormwater can be captured where it falls and used to green the city, instead of overwhelming sewers and flushing raw sewage directly into City waterways. The legislation, City Council Intro No. 630, ensures that New York City will follow through with the initiatives outlined in Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, by requiring the development of a city-wide Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan focusing on such measures. The mayor is expected to sign it into law.
“The adoption of this local law means cleaner rivers and bays in all five boroughs – and, literally, a greener New York City,” said Larry Levine, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney. “Green infrastructure is the perfect blend of simple common sense and innovative technology. Green roofs, smarter design of tree plantings, porous surfaces for parking lots and roads, and other creative uses of urban landscaping – all of these things help rainfall evaporate or soak into the ground, rather than polluting the nearest water body and causing our city’s overburdened sewer system to overflow with raw sewage. It’s a win-win.”
Currently, more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewer overflows (“CSOs”) into New York Harbor each year. Although water quality in the harbor has improved significantly over the last few decades, most of the waterfront and its beaches are still unsafe for recreation after it rains. New York City’s outmoded sewer system combines sewage from buildings with dirty stormwater from streets. As little as one-tenth of an inch of rain can overload the system, causing raw sewage to overflow into the harbor.
The city’s most recent plans for addressing this problem, submitted to the state Department of Environmental Conservation last year, would reduce these sewer overflows by only about 40% – leaving about 17 billion gallons still pouring into waterbodies around the city each year.
Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) – a coalition of more than 50 organizations, including community and environmental groups, environmental justice organizations, architects, water engineers, and community development corporations – partnered with Councilmember James Gennaro, Chair of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, to advance the landmark legislation. In addition to providing a roadmap for solutions to the CSO problem, the law requires the City to notify the public when sewer overflows occur, so recreational boaters, kayakers, swimmers, and fishermen can take appropriate precautions.
“Currently, there is no mechanism for alerting people who work or recreate on New York City’s waterways to the time and place of sewer overflows,” said Kate Zidar, Environmental Planner for Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. “While we work toward the long term goal of preventing CSOs altogether, this new law will ensure that the city keeps the public informed of sewage overflows to protect public health – and to make sure people know the importance of solving this problem.”
CSOs and stormwater runoff not only make waters unsightly and unsafe for recreation after a rainfall due to the release of raw sewage, they also significantly harm aquatic ecosystems, by lowering dissolved oxygen levels, contaminating the food web, and persisting in sediments for the long term. Stormwater that enters the sewers carries litter, petrochemicals from roadways, pesticides fertilizers from landscaped areas, and even pet waste.
“This local law is good for the City’s environment and makes sound economic sense,” said Basil Seggos, Riverkeeper’s Chief Investigator. “By regarding stormwater as a resource for irrigating the landscape, we not only improve water quality, but also capture all the added economic benefits of green infrastructure, including cooler streets, reduced energy costs (by reducing building cooling needs), cleaner air, sequestration and reduction of global warming pollution, flood mitigation, and more livable communities.”
“Too frequently, opportunities for creating jobs for the poor are missed when planning for our future, said Rob Crauderueff, Sustainable Alternatives Director for Sustainable South Bronx. “This legislation creates a vehicle for improving job training and job creation for green jobs – while supporting the development of local markets in the process. We can make our waterways and economy accessible for all New Yorkers by building and maintaining green infrastructure and green-collar jobs throughout New York City.”
“Many New Yorkers have already shown a commitment to this type of greening, which is endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a cost-effective tool for reducing urban water pollution, and already being implemented in dozens of cities around the globe, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Seattle in the U.S.,” said Teresa Crimmens, Ecology Director of the Bronx River Alliance. “The passage of this local law shows the City of New York’s commitment to make the water cleaner by making the city greener.”
“This new law builds on Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, which is already on the right track with plans to plant a million new trees, improve parks in every neighborhood, and provide tax incentives for green roofs,” said Dr. Paul Mankiewicz, Executive Director of the Gaia Institute. “With widespread implementation of green infrastructure throughout the city, we could ultimately capture over a billion gallons of stormwater from a single storm, and plant enough vegetation to reverse the urban heat island and significantly decrease the air conditioning expenses and associated air pollution in New York City.”
The S.W.I.M. coalition also supports other initiatives pending before the City Council and City Planning Commission to promote the use of green infrastructure in New York City, including zoning and other legislative requirements that would ensure that all of the million trees to be planted under PlaNYC are installed in common-sense ways that optimize their stormwater capture potential.