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Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers model to tackle city’s sewage problem

April 18, 2019 Scott Enman
Diane Steinberg, Shelby White and Scot Medbury cut the ribbon for the Water Conservation Project. Photo by Julienne Schaer, courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Amidst the emerging cherry blossoms, Brooklyn Botanic Garden revealed an ambitious conservation project on Tuesday that would reduce its freshwater consumption and its stormwater runoff by millions of gallons (each) per year. Its proponents say it’s a model that can take pressure off of the city’s overburdened sewage system.

The $13 million project, which is the first of its kind in North America, uses underground pipes to recirculate rainwater throughout the garden’s 52-acre watershed, reducing its water consumption by about 96 percent — from 22 million gallons to just 900,000 gallons per year.

But for Scot Medbury, president of BBG, the greater environmental impact falls on their reduction of stormwater runoff, which will be cut from 8 million gallons to 2.5 million gallons per year using state-of-the-art satellite technology.

In heavy rains, stormwater runoff – or rain that flows into city sewer systems – can overwhelm the city’s waste treatment plants, forcing them to dump untreated sewage into New York’s waterways. When this happens, it’s known as combined-sewer-overflow — CSO.

“New York is one of 200 American communities where the sanitary-sewer system and the stormwater system are one and the same,” Medbury told the Brooklyn Eagle. “When it rains like mad, it backs up and fouls everything and closes the beaches.

“We’ve got a really fantastic model for a lot of other people with this project. This has not been attempted at this scale, coupled with a massive recirculation project.”

The project extends from the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden to the Shelby White and Leon Levy Water Garden via Belle’s Brook — a restored and expanded waterway that runs through the Plant Family collection.

A map of the Water Convervation Project. Photo courtey of Brooklyn Botanic Garden
A map of the Water Conversation Project. Map courtesy of Brooklyn Botanic Garden

During heavy rainstorms, BBG normally has to release CSO into the sewer system, but using the satellite technology, the garden can predict immediately prior to a storm how much rain is expected.

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It can then empty its southern pond before the storm begins and sewers are overwhelmed. Once the storm arrives, the pond is refilled.

“We’re dumping it ahead of time,” Medbury explained. “Using technology, it’s a real model to solve this problem of combined-sewer-overflow.”

Bio filters were also installed during the project in the Japanese pond, which will make it less murky and provide more oxygen for the fish.

Project manager Matt Bird of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the architects responsible for the Water Conservation Project and Brooklyn Bridge Park, said that the project is not only functional, but also beautiful, and it provides a better experience for visitors.

“For us, we’re not only thinking about the horticulture and the research that BBG does, but also the visitors that come here,” Matt Bird told the Eagle. “To get away from the city a little bit and be a part of nature and be able to see the stream, see a different experience, and then hear it as you walk up to it, you’re able to step back from your daily urban life and really experience nature a little bit.

“There’s a sense of calm when you’re near the stream and hear the water. We think it makes a big difference for the visitors.”

Children from Maple Street School in Brooklyn release leaf boats into the new brook. Photo by Julienne Schaer, courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Children from Maple Street School in Brooklyn release leaf boats into the new brook. Photo by Julienne Schaer, courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

The garden has a history of undertaking ambitious green projects. The new Visitor Center, which opened in 2012, has won 20 awards for its sustainability. It has a living roof, an energy-efficient design and a geothermal heating and cooling system.

BBG also uses rain gardens to put stormwater back into the ground and uses zero pesticides.

For Medbury, the Water Conservation Project is just the first of many more revolutionary projects for the garden.

“The frontiers for us ahead relate to energy conservation consumption in the buildings,” he said. “We’re 109 years old, so it’s an old institution, but we’re really committed.

“We want to be perceived as part of the future and part of the solution, not part of the past and part of the problem. So these kind of greening efforts are really critical.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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