Brooklyn’s Dirty Water Will Soon Get Cleaner

March 14, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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City, State OK

Plan To Manage

Stormwater Runoff

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By Raanan Geberer

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — What do the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek have in common?

Both are in Brooklyn, and both are so heavily polluted that they have been declared federal Superfund sites. In addition, they and many other bodies of water, such as Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn and Queens, suffer from the effects of combined sewer overflow.

What this means is that, in New York and many other older cities in the Northeast and the Midwest, street stormwater runoff and home sewage feed into the same sewer system. Usually, sewage heads to treatment plants, and stormwater runoff runs into nearby bodies of water. But in storms, to avoid overloads that cause stormwater to back up onto city streets, the city flips a switch and lets untreated sewage into bodies of water like the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek and the Jamaica Bay — with predictable results.

Hans Hesselein, director of special projects for the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, says, “It’s even more pressing than the industrial pollution that’s already in the canal. Those toxins locked up in the bottom area [of the canal] are a big deal, but they’re generally sitting in place. The CSO [Combined Sewer Overflow] is the biggest source of ongoing and new pollution in the canal.”

Daniel Mundy of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers said that when sewage is pumped into the bay, it forms a layer of organic material on the bottom and also contributes to an unhealthy algae bloom. Both of these factors decrease the amount of oxygen in the bay, which is harmful to plant, bird and aquatic life.

Help is on the way, however. Earlier this week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced an agreement to improve overall water quality. Under this agreement, the city will invest approximately $187 million over the next three years and an estimated $2.4 billion of public and private funding over the next 18 years to install green infrastructure technologies to manage stormwater before it even enters the sewer system — thus avoiding overloads.

On the heels of this agreement, DEP has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for three separate engineering and design services contracts to create green infrastructure master plans for the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek and Flushing Bay in Queens.

DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov told the Eagle, “This will have a direct impact on the Gowanus Canal.” In addition to new measures, he said, the grant provision will help nonprofits such as the Gowanus Canal Conservancy that have already planned their own measures, such as the Sponge Park. This park, which is planned to run alongside the entire canal, will be full of shrubbery, grass and trees that will soak up water before it reaches the canal — in other words, act as a sponge.

Examples of the type of measures the city has in mind are “green roofs,” which use plants to absorb water that lands on building tops; tree pits; porous pavement for parking lots that allows water to seep through it and be absorbed by the ground rather than running into the sewer system; rain barrels for some residential areas; and swales, or low-lying, marshy tracts of land that would also absorb water. These are examples of “green infrastructure.”

Andrew Kimball, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, said, “We applaud the State Department of Environmental Conservation and the City Department of Environmental Protection for investing in green and gray infrastructure upgrades. Having made major investments to rebuild the Yard’s storm-water management systems to be environmentally friendly, we couldn’t be more supportive of the state and city’s efforts.” Gray infrastructure refers to roads, sewers, utilities and buildings.

By the way, Sklerov of the DEP emphasizes that only about 10 percent of untreated water from households in the sewer system is what you think. The majority is water that is used to wash dishes, clean clothes and give people showers and baths.

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