Advocating a Sustainable Stormwater Plan for New York City


image courtesy of Kate Zidar

On January 30, Intro 630-A, a bill drafted and supported by the SWIM Coalition and city council member James Gennaro, was approved unanimously by the New York City Council. On February 19, Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill into law. The legislation aims, by creating sustainable stormwater management, to drastically reduce the toxic soup of stormwater and sewage that flows into New York City’s waterways, and requires that a final sustainable stormwater management plan be adopted by December 2008. The law also requires the city to alert the public when overflows do occur, so recreational boaters, kayakers, and swimmers can take appropriate precautions. By managing stormwater, and alerting New Yorkers when water has become toxic, the legislation should make sure that New York’s waterways will finally be truly open for safe and healthy recreational use.

The SWIM coalition (the acronym stands for Stormwater Infrastructure Matters) is made up of ~50 groups, including: the Bronx River Alliance, Cook and Fox Architects, Durst Organization, NYPIRG, NRDC, Riverkeeper, South Bronx Economic Development Corporation, Sustainable South Bronx and many others. These diverse groups came together with the central conviction that the city needs to aspire to more than legal compliance when it comes to its waterways, and aim instead to act as an environmental steward. Intro 630-A complements New York City Department of Environmental Protection's Draft Long Term Control Plan, which was submitted in June and alone would only have resulted in reducing sewer overflows by 40 percent.

In New York City, each year more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewer outfalls. Stormwater contains petrochemicals, pesticides, and even pet waste, and causes harm to aquatic ecosystems by lowering oxygen levels and persisting in sediments. Following heavy rains, stormwater flows from streets, parking lots, rooftops, and other paved and impervious surfaces of the city, and merges with an underground reservoir of untreated sewage. This disgusting blend of raw sewage and polluted storm water is released at the risk of overwhelming sewage treatment plants, in order to prevent sewage water from flowing back up the system straight into people's homes. The overflow problem is due to an antiquated water management system, which causes combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. People often don't realize that stormwater and untreated sewage water are flowing into their waterways, but more than 600 U.S. cities still have combined sewer systems.

Water quality in New York City has definitely improved since the days when the East River could catch on fire, but the water is still not safe for recreation after it rains. Today, advocacy members of SWIM want the city to use source control measures to drastically decrease the amount of stormwater from even entering the combined sewer system, with the inspiring final goal of making all New York waters safe for fishing and swimming through sustainable storm water management practices.

Many social justice groups joined SWIM and were big supporters of the bill, because they see green techniques as a way to not only improve water quality, but also to provide green collar jobs, and to improve quality of life in neighborhoods along the watershed. The legislation also proposes using tax incentives, grants, and low-interest financing to encourage private owners to install some of these strategies as well.

The requirement for a sustainable stormwater plan would force the city to devise green best-management practices with green design elements, in turn greening streets, parks, and other public spaces, as well as existing and new development projects. Using green infrastructure would reduce stormwater and sewage problems where the stormwater falls, and utilize the water for irrigating greenways and green roofs. Source control strategies offer other benefits too, such as cooler streets, reduced energy use, cleaner air, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, and improved public health

Other examples of these green technologies include underground chambers for storm water storage, an increased number and smarter planting of street trees (planting that optimizes their storm water capture potential), porous pavement (pavement that allows water to be absorbed into streets and parking lots and recharges groundwater), cisterns, rain barrels, rain gardens and swales (low tracts of land that capture water and conserve soil), and wetland restoration. Many of these approaches utilize storm water as a resource instead of treating it as waste. They also use better site design and low impact development technologies which are already widely in use in other cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburg, and Seattle.

We are now one step closer to a swimmable New York, but we still have several steps to go.

Tags: Green Building