When Mayor Bloomberg stated through 2007 PlaNYC that his administration intended to “open 90% of our waterways to recreation by preserving natural areas and reducing pollution”, people took notice. We take notice because recreational use of a waterbody requires meeting more rigorous water quality standards. So an alternative reading of this statement might be, “we can afford to leave 10% of waterways unsafe for contact.” Although we are an industrial waterway, we nonetheless advocate for the Clean Water Act goals for safe contact here on Newtown Creek. Unfortunately, the city’s recent planning efforts are pointing to what waterbodies they think are beyond saving, and Newtown Creek seems to be in 10%.
Combined sewer overflow (CSO) contribute an estimated 1.5 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater to Newtown Creek annually, conveyed from a vast upland watershed through 23 permitted CSO outfalls throughout the creek. The vast majority of CSO – over 90% – is discharged from just 5 of these outfalls, located within the tributaries of the creek, where tidal flushing is extremely poor and water quality is most severely impaired. The NYC DEP is working along two planning tracks to address this problem. The “plan of record” is the CSO Long Term Control Plan, currently in draft form and under review with the NYS DEC, and focuses on traditional centralized “grey” infrastructure recommendations, while the more recent NYC Green Infrastructure Plan of 2010 incorporates decentralized Green Infrastructure (GI) investments such as vegetated swales and green roofs.
Recently, the NYC DEP and the NYS DEC agreed to formally incorporate GI into the Long Term Control Plan, which required a renegotiation of a Consent Order that governs this mandated planning process. This is an acronym–riddled, highly technical course that only the most intrepid water quality advocates care to navigate, but will nonetheless have a lasting effect on how the broader public can safely access the “6th borough” of our public waterways.
In the process of renegotiating the terms of the Long Term Control Plan to include Green Infrastructure, there seems to be winners and losers. Some waterbodies are projected to achieve more CSO reductions with less public dollars, while others, such as Newtown Creek, have seen major backsliding from earlier commitments made to reduce CSO pollution. This draft of the plan would allow for the discharge of 567 million more gallons of sewage than was allowed in the 2009 version of the Consent Order. This draft would not reduce pollution to sufficiently protect sustenance fishermen and recreational boaters that are present in increasing numbers on the Creek. This draft does promise a Green Infrastructure pilot project that alludes to future investment in GI in the watershed, but makes no hard guarantees.
The main strategy for improving water quality in the creek is to aerate the majority of the waterbody, like you do at home with your fish tank. While this strategy “teaches to the test” in the sense that dissolved oxygen levels in the creek will be directly improved, nothing is actually repaired ecologically. In fact, some are concerned this approach does more harm than good. The aeration produces a fine aerosol at the water’s surface that might mobilize contamination into a handy breathable mist, an effect of particular concern for those who work or recreate right on the waterway.
Past elements of the “grey” plan, such as a detention tank for CSO volumes that would contain overflow and then pump it through the sewage treatment plant when capacity freed up, were scrapped entirely.
Newtown Creek is a complex planning environment with local, state and federal layers. We face monumental environmental challenges, with historic and ongoing sources of contamination. Granted, the city has made deep investments at the Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant, finally bringing the facility up to Clean Water Act standards, and promises more investment to come in in the realm of Green Infrastructure. It is nonetheless bewildering that at the moment when all hands are on deck to clean up the creek, the city takes a step back from its commitments on CSO.
For the first time in the history of this waterway, we have the scale and scope of commitment in place to turn it around, but we will only succeed if everyone does their share. Resuscitating Newtown Creek is going to require leadership and collaboration like we’ve never seen.
Newtown Creek Alliance
The NYS DEC is collecting comments on this draft plan until March 9. Send your thoughts to Gary Kline at firstname.lastname@example.org.