The Power of Green Infrastructure Comes to the Big Apple

It’s not as easy to make jokes about New York City anymore. Sure, you can still say that New Yorkers think they’re the smartest, most cultured folks in the world. You can say it’s too crowded, that car horns are honked at all hours, that the people are rude, yada yada yada. But some of the old stereotypes about my hometown aren’t true anymore. The subways are actually pretty clean, reliable, and safe. Times Square doesn’t look like a seedy dive (although all the neon and bright lights might put your eyes out). The city has been pretty well cleaned up over the past 15 years, and the smell is no longer too offensive to your olfactory senses.

But there are still problems, and one of them is that stormwater and sewage overflows are a real danger. It’s been said that sewage overflows are the biggest water quality problem in New York (outside of brushing your teeth using water in the East River), and the poor quality of many of the waterways prevent them from meeting U.S. standards for fishing and swimming, and for being healthy habitats for wildlife.

To that end, New York City and New York State government agencies have teamed up to change how stormwater and sewage problems are dealt with. Two years ago, a plan was tentatively announced to change for the greener, using soil, vegetation, and new infrastructure to help retain storm water before it reaches down into the sewers.

The plan that also included dozens of other changes (which I’ll explain in more detail in a minute) was finally approved two weeks ago and included a whopping $2 billion in public and private investment. This approach that New York City is taking is not revolutionary as far as major U.S. cities go; others are trying similar programs with success.

As with most things New York, the size and financial commitment being made by the city and state is head-turning.

Just ask Peter Lehner, the executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Lehner wrote a story on Huffington Post last week effusively praising the new agreement:

“It’s hard to overstate what a dramatic shift in thinking this represents. Instead of viewing stormwater as waste, New York is turning it into a resource,” Lehner wrote.  “With this move, New York is showing the rest of the country that if the largest city in the U.S. can finally tackle its chronic water pollution problems with green infrastructure, they can too.”

According to the New York Times, this agreement also marks the first time the state has allowed the city to use environmental infrastructure to meet federal water quality standards.

To get more of the nitty-gritty details of the agreement, I spoke with officials from both the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

First, from the city side of things, I spoke with Farrell Sklerov, a spokesperson for DEP and someone who’s been intimately involved in the project since it was first proposed.

“It’s really mostly a re-thinking of how we deal with stormwater management,” Sklerov began. “Stormwater leads to sewer overflows, something that cities and states have been dealing with for decades now.  “Trying to combat that issue isn’t new, it’s just the method in which you do that has evolved over time.”

Here’s some of what will happen in New York City because of this agreement: The city plans to invest about $187 million, spread out over three years, and an estimated $2.4 billion of public and private financing over the next 18 years, to install a wide array of green improvements, also called “green infrastructure.”

These include new porous pavement, green roofs and bioswales. What’s a bioswale? It’s basically a tree pit that helps storm water runoff seep back into the ground, Sklerov explained.

(Photo: This is a model of a tree pit, or bioswale, that New York City is building to help combat the problem of stormwater overflows and sewer overflows. The city expects to build 100 bioswales in the next few years. Photo source: New York City Dept. of Environmental Protection).

According to the DEP, the city will install street-side infiltration swales. These involve a large green space in the sidewalk with two curb cuts: one to channel runoff from the street and into the installation, and the other to allow ponded stormwater or overflow to travel back to the street for conveyance to storm water sewer catch basins.

“The (bioswales) will have a much deeper pit beneath it, so you’ll be able to trap the water and minimize the amount of water overflowing into the sewers,” Sklerov said. “We’re expecting to install 100 bioswales throughout the city.”

City officials say that with the adoption of green infrastructure, about 1.5 billion gallons of sewer overflows will be removed annually from waterways by 2030 (which is a 40 percent reduction from the current level of overflows, Sklerov said.)

About 12 billion gallons will be kept out of waterways through traditional and green methods combined.

There will be other benefits under the new plan. As mentioned earlier, porous pavement will be installed throughout the city, for parking lots that allow water to seep through and be absorbed into the ground rather than running-off into the sewer system.

Also expected to be installed are blue roofs and green roofs, which use mechanical devices or vegetation to slow roof water from draining too quickly and overwhelming sewers, as well as rain barrels in some residential parks.

Sklerov said the average New Yorker will notice these changes within the next year.

“What’s wonderful about green infrastructure is its very visible to the public, and very easy to see,” Sklerov said. “In the past, you’d build a concrete holding tank underground, and most people don’t think about what’s underneath their feet. They don’t see it on a day to day basis. But this you’ll be able to see.”

Now, obviously the cost of all this is prohibitive and may cause concern to some. Lehner of the NRDC has an argument ready for those who think this is too much money to spend on stormwater systems.

“Building out traditional ‘gray’ infrastructure, like pipes and underground storage tanks, to handle the excess water can be hugely expensive, and we often outgrow them as the population increases,” Lehner wrote. “Dozens of cities around the country are finding that green infrastructure, which absorbs rain before it reaches the sewer system (lessening the load it needs to process so there are fewer overflows) can be a more cost-effective solution that not only slashes water pollution, but also provides flood protection, beautifies communities, improves air quality and cuts energy costs.”

On the state side of things, DEC spokesperson Emily DeSantis said that “city residents will enjoy a greener landscape, improved water quality in New York Harbor, and other water bodies in New York. Recreational opportunities in and on the water will increase over the next 20 years.”

It is, of course, too early to know if these changes will solve the overrun problem in New York. But at the very least, it’s a massive amount of money committed to trying these new techniques to combat the issue.

“We’re trying to figure out how you can go back to how nature intended, and do things in a much more cost-effective way,” Sklerov said. “This could hopefully be beneficial, financially and culturally in so many way to New Yorkers.”

And in a city where you can’t even get two people to agree on the best bagel place in the neighborhood, that’s something on which everyone can concur.



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